Toxoplasmosis gondii, Pregnancy and Cats – Fact vs. Fiction

Well over halfway through my second pregnancy, I am currently inundated with comments from clients, mostly positive, and it has added a bit of humour and lively conversation to my otherwise increasingly tiring days. ‘Do you know if it’s a boy or a girl?’ ‘How do you think your toddler is going to react to the new baby?’ ‘Are you going to come back to work after two children?’ But one question I wasn’t expecting came from a woman with a lovely ginger tom – ‘Are you sure you’re OK to examine my cat if you’re pregnant?’ I laughed and assured her that despite my expanding waistline I could still reach the table and her cat would be fine. But after a slightly confused and very embarrassed smile, she explained that she had recently been told by a friend that she would have to give up her beloved cat once she became pregnant because it wasn’t safe for pregnant women to be around cats. It had been a while since I had heard that myth and was saddened to hear it again, but I wasn’t terribly surprised. We spent most of the rest of the consultation discussing the real facts about toxoplasmosis, the disease in question, and she left very much relieved that her feline friend was not going to have to be evicted should she ever decide to have a baby, and determined to speak to her GP if she had any further concerns.

What causes toxoplasmosis?

Amber-on-grassToxoplasma gondii, the protozoal parasite responsible for causing the disease known as toxoplasmosis, is a tiny single-celled organism that can infect many different species from mice to sheep to humans. Cats, however, are the only hosts in which the parasite can reproduce, so in addition to being infected themselves, they can also release oocysts (which are essentially the eggs from which new organisms are created) in their faeces. These eggs are very resistant and can survive in some environments for months, allowing other animals to ingest them with their food. When other animals such as mice become infected with the parasite, it develops to form tiny cysts in their muscles and waits there until the animal is eaten by another cat so it can begin the cycle all over again. Most animals, therefore, are capable of spreading the infection through the consumption of their flesh, but only cats are able to spread it via their faeces.

What happens to cats that are infected with toxoplasmosis?

The short answer to this question is, well, usually not much. In fact, unless the cat is otherwise ill or immunocompromised (young kittens, or those with FIV or FeLV), most owners don’t even notice if their cat becomes infected. If cats do show symptoms, these usually include fever, decreased appetite and lethargy. Rarely, more serious cases may develop pneumonia, blindness or inflammation of the eyes, or more commonly, neurological symptoms such as personality changes, loss of balance, walking in circles, difficulty swallowing, or seizures.

How are people infected and why is it so dangerous?

People can become infected by handling the faeces of infected cats (but only during the few weeks after they become infected for the first time, after that they stop shedding the eggs), gardening in soil that has been defecated in by recently infected cats, or more commonly, eating undercooked meat of any kind as animals such as lambs and pigs can also be infected (the cooking process kills the organism). But as you’ll see below, all of these things are easily prevented with simple and common sense measures. There are three main health concerns when it comes to humans. The first and most well-known risk group is pregnant women. Expectant mothers that pick up the disease for the first time during pregnancy (ie, NOT those that have already been exposed to it earlier in life) do not usually show symptoms themselves but are capable of passing the infection on to their unborn child. In these cases, vision and hearing loss, mental disabilities and occasionally even death of the child are possible. So there is certainly cause for concern. The second group of people that are particularly at risk are those that already have immune systems that are deficient, such as those with HIV or AIDS or who are on chemotherapy. Finally, although the vast majority of people who become infected with the toxoplasma organism (and that includes a staggering one third to one half of the world’s human population!) show only mild flu-like symptoms if any at all, it has recently been linked to some pretty serious conditions such as brain tumours, attention deficit disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, schizophrenia and possibly even an increase in suicide risk. But because most people don’t know they have it, it isn’t something that is routinely screened for so a lot more studies need to be done before we know the true effects of the illness in all species, not just humans.

If toxoplasmosis can do all that, why would anybody own a cat??

Domino-sleepingBecause even though cats spread the disease, we are very unlikely to catch it directly from them. Cats are only capable of spreading the disease for the first 2-3 weeks after they are first infected. After that, they are immune to new infections and although they may later show symptoms, they are not later contagious. And then even if your cat was shedding eggs, there has to be direct ingestion of the contaminated faecal material by humans. Not many of us (perhaps toddlers aside…) will intentionally consume cat faeces, but we will sometimes come inside after gardening and grab a quick sandwich without remembering to wash our hands. This is not a problem with the cat itself, rather our own personal hygiene. It is extremely unlikely that you would pick up toxoplasmosis by petting your cat or being scratched or bitten by your cat, because the organism is not spread by the fur or saliva. You CAN, however, pick up toxoplasmosis by eating undercooked infected meat, particularly lamb and pork. Again, this is not your cat’s fault, rather our own lack of taste or culinary skills, and is by far the most common way of picking up the disease in developed countries.

What’s the best way to avoid becoming infected?

Use common sense, and if you are pregnant, take a few extra precautions and chances are you’ll be just fine. Unless you already have it, which is probably more likely than you care to acknowledge, but chances are you’ll never know it so you might as well do these things anyway!

• Don’t eat raw or undercooked meat or drink unpasteurised milk. And once you’re finished preparing raw meat, wash your hands and all surfaces that it may have touched.

• Wash fruits and vegetables before eating them, even if they came from your own organic garden.

• Wash your hands well after gardening and before eating, especially for children, goodness knows where those hands have been…

• Pregnant women, and people with suppressed immune systems, should not clean the litter tray (I don’t know many pregnant women who wouldn’t jump at the chance to make their partner clean the litter tray). Or if you must clean the litter tray yourself, wear gloves, wash your hands well and try to remove the stools daily as faeces that have been sitting around for a few days are more infectious.

Toxoplasmosis is a serious illness and can cause serious harm to both cats and humans. But contrary to what many people believe, living with a cat only slightly increases your chance of catching the disease and with the help of simple common sense measures like those mentioned above, this risk can be minimised. So yes, I’m perfectly happy to keep working and living with cats, and hopefully you will be too. But if you do have any questions regarding either your own health or that of your family, make an appointment to speak with your GP and make sure everybody is aware of the facts rather than the myths about toxoplasmosis.

If you are worried about your cat talk to your vet or use our Interactive Cat Symptom Guide to check any symptoms they may be showing and see how soon you should visit your vet.

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42 thoughts on “Toxoplasmosis gondii, Pregnancy and Cats – Fact vs. Fiction

  1. I revelled in not having to clean our cat’s litter tray while I was pregnant! Just being a little bit careful is easy and does no harm, as with lots of things in pregnancy we’re advised to avoid.

  2. I revelled in not having to clean our cat’s litter tray while I was pregnant! Just being a little bit careful is easy and does no harm, as with lots of things in pregnancy we’re advised to avoid.

  3. Dr. Bergs, what additional actions must be taken by a veterinary care worker? My daughter is a Vet Tech at a Dog and Cat practice and she has just become pregnant. What things must she do while at work?

    You are uniquely qualified to answer this question whose answer I can’t seem to find elsewhere.

    Thanks.

    1. Great question, and one that I have indeed had quite a bit of experience with having two children of my own whilst working as a vet. The good news is that as she has been working closely with cats at work, chances are higher that she has already been exposed to toxoplasmosis and is therefore not going to pick up the disease for the first time during pregnancy (as it is only new infections that seem to cause problems with the baby). If she is unsure of her exposure, I believe she can ask her doctor for a blood test to confirm it. Either way, the safest way to protect herself against toxoplasmosis (or any zoonotic disease encountered frequently by those working in the veterinary profession) is to wear gloves when working with sick animals or cat faeces and wash her hands regularly. She can also decline to work with any animal suspected of having toxoplasmosis as I’m sure her colleagues would understand her situation. She should also, of course, wear gloves when gardening and cook all meat thoroughly just like anybody else. If she has any concerns about toxoplasmosis, anaesthetic gas exposure, lifting heavy dogs or any other potential risk to her pregnancy she should speak with her doctor and employer about ways of reducing her level of risk whilst pregnant.

      Dr Bergs

      via Dave (admin)

  4. Dr. Bergs, what additional actions must be taken by a veterinary care worker? My daughter is a Vet Tech at a Dog and Cat practice and she has just become pregnant. What things must she do while at work?

    You are uniquely qualified to answer this question whose answer I can’t seem to find elsewhere.

    Thanks.

    1. Great question, and one that I have indeed had quite a bit of experience with having two children of my own whilst working as a vet. The good news is that as she has been working closely with cats at work, chances are higher that she has already been exposed to toxoplasmosis and is therefore not going to pick up the disease for the first time during pregnancy (as it is only new infections that seem to cause problems with the baby). If she is unsure of her exposure, I believe she can ask her doctor for a blood test to confirm it. Either way, the safest way to protect herself against toxoplasmosis (or any zoonotic disease encountered frequently by those working in the veterinary profession) is to wear gloves when working with sick animals or cat faeces and wash her hands regularly. She can also decline to work with any animal suspected of having toxoplasmosis as I’m sure her colleagues would understand her situation. She should also, of course, wear gloves when gardening and cook all meat thoroughly just like anybody else. If she has any concerns about toxoplasmosis, anaesthetic gas exposure, lifting heavy dogs or any other potential risk to her pregnancy she should speak with her doctor and employer about ways of reducing her level of risk whilst pregnant.

      Dr Bergs

      via Dave (admin)

  5. Dear Dr. Bergs,

    A couple of days ago, I was playing with my dog and some soil was on my hand which has an open fresh wound on it and some may have gotten in the wound (it a small cracked wound from a very dried hand. It was bleeding and was still very pink by the tome soil got on it). I am wondering what are chances of catching toxoplasmosis through an open fresh wound? Is that possible? I am 23 weeks pregnant and worried sick of catching toxo as i am not immune to it.

    Thank you very much,
    Paully

  6. Dear Dr. Bergs,

    A couple of days ago, I was playing with my dog and some soil was on my hand which has an open fresh wound on it and some may have gotten in the wound (it a small cracked wound from a very dried hand. It was bleeding and was still very pink by the tome soil got on it). I am wondering what are chances of catching toxoplasmosis through an open fresh wound? Is that possible? I am 23 weeks pregnant and worried sick of catching toxo as i am not immune to it.

    Thank you very much,
    Paully

  7. Hi there could someone help please ,, my little cat escaped about 3 weeks ago ,, she now has enlarged nipples and there very pink ,, she’s behaving oddly,, she goes off her food from time to time ,, is it possible she’s pregnant ,, the reason for my question is I have never had a female cat before ,, thank u

    1. Hi Michelle, if your your female cat isn’t neutered then she could indeed be pregnant. I recommend that you take her to be examined by your vet as something is obviously awry if you’ve noticed a change in her. Best wishes.

  8. Hi there could someone help please ,, my little cat escaped about 3 weeks ago ,, she now has enlarged nipples and there very pink ,, she’s behaving oddly,, she goes off her food from time to time ,, is it possible she’s pregnant ,, the reason for my question is I have never had a female cat before ,, thank u

    1. Hi Michelle, if your your female cat isn’t neutered then she could indeed be pregnant. I recommend that you take her to be examined by your vet as something is obviously awry if you’ve noticed a change in her. Best wishes.

  9. Dr. Bergs,
    I was kissing my friends kittens and am 18 weeks pregnant and freaking out. Can I get toxoplasmosis? How long should I wait to get tested? I did not kiss them on the mouth just near the cheek and back. The kittens have been in door for a few at least 6-8 weeks and have received all their shots and physicals . I’m just worried.

    1. Hi Melissa. We can appreciate why you’re worried, but you should find you’ll be fine. If you do have concerns, we’d always recommend having a chat to your Doctor who will be the best-placed person to advise whether or not they think you need any tests done.

  10. I recently adopted a cat, whom I had tested for Toxo On Saturday 11/10/18 and the IGG antibody came back negative and the IGM antibody came back with titer 1:64. The vet told me it was overall negative because the number was so small, but then another vet (at the humane society where I adopted her from) told me it was positive and an indication of a recent infection where the cat could potentially be shedding the infectious parasite in her feces. I’m not sure who to assume is right and would really like a third opinion- as I am now pregnant (11 weeks) and I tested negative for Toxo on 11/5/18 prior to adopting this cat, I adopted her 11/9. As of this evening she is back at the humane society vet office over night because she is not eating since I got her a week ago, and it turns out her brother at the shelter is not eating either and has a fever and it currently quarenteined from other cats. I’m just in a bit of a panic over this thinking I made a mistake adopting the cat at this time. I have been wearing gloves and a mask and scooping the litter daily, and washing my hands ridiculous amounts. But I also have made little mistakes here and there like playing with her feet then getting up and eating something not thinking about how I was just playing with cat toes. I am hoping to get a third opinion on the test result, would she have shown positive results if she is still shedding them or would she not have any antibodies built up yet? Could it be a false positive ? I thought I understood what adopting her meant and needing to take the necessary precautions; but in my mind I was taking precautions but for no reason because I was sure she was fine. She was in the shelter just shy of two months so I assumed she wouldn’t have had contact with raw meat during that time frame and if she had prior the infectious eggs would have already passed. How long would it take for me to show positive results if I did pick it up from her becuase I didn’t wash my hands well enough?

    1. Hi Heather,

      Regarding the cat, a single IgG test isn’t always useful – my understanding is that it takes several weeks to start to rise after an infection becomes established. It’s more reliable if a second one is taken 2-4 weeks later; a rising titre is the most accurate marker of infection.
      The IgM result tends to rise faster than the IgG and falls sooner; some authorities regard >1:64 as positive, other cite >1:256 as evidence of a recent infection. In this particular case, the IgG is negative and the IgM is borderline positive – so I think it likely that you would need a second IgG titre to be certain whether this was an active infection or not. Essentially, from this information we cannot be certain if she is in the recovery phase (falling titres, low risk of shedding) or the initial infection stage (rising titres, higher risk). It appears that a high IgG titre may reduce the risk of shedding oocysts, whereas a high IgM one does not to the same extent.
      In terms of your own health, as vets we are not legally in a position to advise you, and would instead strongly suggest you contact a human healthcare professional.

  11. Hi I adopted a stray cat nine months ago and she has been indoors since then. She’s up to date with her vaccinations. She accidentally slightly scratched my eyeball 2 days ago. I don’t have any pain inflammation or blurred vision. Should I be concerned about catching cat scratch disease or ocular toxoplasmosis? What should I do? Thank you

    1. I’m afraid that as veterinary professionals, we aren’t permitted to give human medical advice; I would however advise that any injury to the eye should be assessed by a qualified human health professional. Cat claws carry a wide range of unpleasant infectious agents, and the eye is potentially very vulnerable to infection and damage.

  12. After my cat goes to the bathroom, he cleans his back end, then continues to clean the rest of his body. Is it a stretch (or just plain paranoia) to be concerned that he could transfer feces to the fur during this process, and that I could then pick up the organism by petting him or giving him kisses? My cat is a ten-year-old indoor/outdoor cat and as such I’m guessing may have already long ago been infected by taxoplasmosis and is no longer in danger of spreading it, but I can’t help worrying a little every time I give him a kiss.

    1. Sadly it’s almost inevitable that faecal bacteria and, potentially, protozoa will be transferred to the rest of his fur. That said, the levels of organisms will be fairly low compared to direct contact with faecal matter, and as you say, it is unlikely that he will be shedding at a high level. I’m afraid that, in terms of the risk to you, we are very limited in what we can (legally!) advise, so I would suggest that you perhaps don’t kiss him (just stroke him and rub his tummy, perhaps), and talk to a human healthcare professional if you are concerned about your own health.

  13. I have two kitty’s and they both live indoors and have for the past 8 years. The only outside contact they have is with my dog who only goes outside to use the restroom and go on walks. What are the chances of myself (11 weeks pregnant) contracting toxoplasmosis?

    1. The risk is probably very low, as healthy adult cats are only infectious for a few weeks after they are infected for the first time. The only way your cats are likely to be infected would be by another cat’s faeces (highly unlikely for an indoor cat) or by eating meat containing parasite cysts. If your cats are catching mice inside the house, there is a small risk to them; as there is if you are feeding them raw meat. Otherwise, it’s unlikely they are excreting the parasites at all.
      Even if they are, good hygiene on your part will make it extremely unlikely that you would contract the parasites from them, unless you were to actively eat their faeces, or empty their litter tray and not wash your hands thoroughly afterwards. Ideally, get someone else to empty their trays or wear gloves if you have to, and wash your hands carefully, and the risk is very low.
      For more specific advice regarding your own health, I would strongly advise seeking advice from a human healthcare professional.

      1. I recently drank my water that I left unattended on my bedside cabinet to then find my cat drinking from it! I’m 26 weeks pregnant and I know I will need to speak with my health professionals and I know the risks are lower than coming into direct contact with the cats faeces, however am I correct by thinking that my cat could only pass toxoplasmosis on to me if:
        A) They have only become infected for the first time and are still within the 3 week period of becoming infected.

        B) if it so happened that my cat is infected, I would have to have never had toxoplasmosis for the infection to harm my baby.

        I’m 33 and have had cats my whole life and been very interactive with them, therefore the chances are I would have come into contact with this infection prior to pregnancy.

        Your advice would be greatly appreciated.

        Thank You,

        Lauren

        1. As a general rule, that’s the case – and my guess is that the risk of the cat transmitting the parasites is pretty low. However, as you’ve said, a (human) medical opinion is the only way you can get a definitive answer!

  14. We have outdoor farm cats (so eat mice & birds) that sneak in the house any chance they can. Im 36 weeks pregnant and made some homemade brownies – with more natural ingredients so a little spendy to make and of course my kiddos let the cats in and I caught a cat digging in to my brownies. I removed the spots I could tell she ate from but am wondering if Im safe to eat the rest or is it too much of a risk? Would it be safe to let my kids eat them if its not for me?

    1. Toxo is usually spread through faeces – but of course, cat groom their back ends and coat with their tongues! However, it’s not just Toxo – cats carry a wide range of bacteria in their mouths, and can spread some types of worms that are infectious to humans too. We can’t really advise you on the risks here; I’d suggest speaking to a qualified human medical professional!

  15. Hi, this might be an odd question but I would really appreciate for any reassurance.. I have terrible anxiety.. 🙁 I’m 22 weeks pregnant. A few weeks ago, just outside my block a stray cat I used to feed was knocked down, crushed 🙁 and the body was left there. It was really heartbreaking.. Is there anyway that toxoplasmosis from the dead cat could contaminate the streets and be spread by cars, people walking stepping all over the streets? My Husband skates and touches his board and I’m wondering if toxoplasmosis could contaminate his clothes and the apartment (with him walking around)..and somehow have me ingesting it without knowing..like maybe after touching his belongings and clothes..
    Sorry if it makes no sense..would really love some advice. Thank you so so much.

    1. It would be unlikely to be a problem, as the parasite is only present in any appreciable amount inside a cat’s intestines, and most cats do not carry it long-term.
      However, I’m afraid we’re not permitted to give human health advice, so I must advise you to contact your human health professional!

  16. My cat has picked up a weird habit lately of putting her paw directly on my mouth to wake me up every morning for food. I’m 14 weeks pregnant and terrified I now have toxoplasmosis. She is an indoor cat mostly. Sometimes she is let out on the deck and feeds on bugs. She is also given very small amount of raw salmon when it is fed to our dog every few days. Am I overreacting?

    1. Hi Laura, it can be passed on to us by ingestion of contaminated faeces (which can happen if you’d cleaned a litter tray, or been pottering in the garden where your cat may use the toilet and don’t wash your hands afterwards) so it’s unlikely to cause you a problem if she’s occasionally patting you with her paw. If you are concerned though, I’d recommend giving your Doctor a quick call, explaining the situation, and they will be happy to advise you accordingly.

  17. Hello, can toxoplasmosis oocysts survive on clothing or on the floor of my home? I have had foster kittens (i wasn’t told they had toxoplasmosis but don’t know forsure) and am wondering if they did, could the oocysts survive in the environment. I know toxoplasmosis is a risk for pregnant women. I’m not pregnant but am wondering if I could be affected in the future if for instance, toxoplasmosis oocysts were left on the floor (since the cat would used the litter box then walk on floor in the home)

    1. Research suggests that oocysts can survive for a prolonged period (at least 3 months) in the environment at room temperatures. However, the risk of infection is pretty low unless you expect to be actually eating off the floor. For more details, I’m afraid I have to advise you to discuss the matter with a human health professional!

  18. hi can i ask you smthm I have a 2 years yorkie dog. Im 24 weeks.pregnant now. I have done 2 taxo test amd have result negative. Should i repeat dhe test until birth becouse my doctor want me to make the test every 1.5 months.

    1. I’m afraid I can’t advise you on human health issues – I strongly suggest you follow your doctor’s advice!

  19. My cat sneezed in my face the other day whilst I was lying down – I got up to wash my face straight away but conscious particles could have gone up my nose/in my mouth. Is this a danger for catching toxoplasmosis? As I’m conscious my cat licks it’s back end to wash.

    1. Theoretically yes, although I doubt it’s a high risk. However, for human health advice I’m afraid I have to recommend that you contact a human medical professional.

  20. I picked up a chair my outside cat had peed o. Sniffed it and realized he peed on it at some point. Can you get toxoplasmosis from cat urine and smelling it?

    1. I think it’s not quite impossible but I imagine the risk would be very, very low. The majority of the oocysts are in the faeces anyway, rather than the urine. Good hand hygiene (washing thoroughly with soap and water) is the best thing to do.

  21. Hello doc… I just needed to know whether i need to give away my 4 month old indoor cat…. Can i pet him..? Like can he have a bit of contamination on his nails and hands… As you know they scratch the litter….??

    1. The risk is actually very low! Although we can’t give human health advice, good hygiene precautions are usually recommended.

  22. We took in a stray kitten. I supposed there is a chance it could have toxoplasmosis. If it does, could holding it transfer toxoplasmosis oocytes to our clothing or could it transfer them around the home via its feet from the litter box? Or is it only transdered through direct contact with feces? Would washing clothing with detergent kill oocytes? Should pregnant friends avoid our home?

    1. The probability is very low. In reality, transmission toxoplasmosis from cats to humans is pretty uncommon, and almost always involves direct contact with faeces. In theory, yes, other routes are possible – but they don’t seem to be particularly significant. For human health advice – we’re not allowed to provide that, please contact a human medical professional!

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