Our Prescription for Toxoplasmosis: Learn the Facts and Keep Your Family Together

The Humane Society of the United States has launched a national campaign to promote better understanding of the risks of toxoplasmosis for pregnant women who own or care for cats.

Let's say you're an expectant mother. Perhaps you're even pregnant with your first child. Like any reasonable parent, you want what's best for your baby, even in utero. You look down at your cat -- maybe the animal you've always considered your first "baby" -- and vaguely recall a discussion you had with your mother about toxoplasmosis. Something about cats and infections and birth defects. Even miscarriages.

Who does a worried mother turn to?

The obvious choice, of course, is your obstetrician and gynecologist. But what if the doctor doesn't have the latest information? Or prefers not to offer an opinion on the situation? Where does that leave you? And where does it leave your cat? Too often, the answers to the latter two questions are these: It can leave you without your trusted animal companion, and it can leave the cat at the local shelter.

To deal with this completely avoidable situation, The Humane Society of the United States recently contacted more than 31,000 obstetricians and gynecologists nationwide and provided them with a packet of information to help their patients understand the facts about the risks of toxoplasmosis. The bottom-line is this: Pregnant women need not give up their cats.

"It is heartbreaking to hear that women are still giving up their cats for fear of contracting toxoplasmosis," says Nancy Peterson, Issues Specialist with The HSUS. "That's why, we gathered the most accurate and up-to-date information and sent it to the nation's OB/GYNs."

The packet includes several items, including the new HSUS patient-education brochure "Your Baby & Your Pet," as well as the clinician guide "Toxoplasmosis: A Practical Guide for the Clinician," written for The HSUS by Dr. Jeffrey D. Kravetz of the Yale University School of Medicine. The packet is part of The HSUS's Pets for Life campaign, a series of programs designed to empower pet caregivers to solve the problems that threaten their relationships with pets.

Dr. Patrick Duff, residency program director of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Florida, penned the cover letter to his fellow OB/GYNs as part of the informational packet, which also includes a return postcard to allow doctors to request 50 additional 'Your Baby & Your Pet' brochures for free. Since the first packets were mailed out in January, doctors have already requested more brochures than the 50,000 we originally printed. But more are on the way, notes The HSUS's Peterson.

Clearly, the message is getting out: Toxoplasmosis is a rare disease in the United States, but when it does occur, it's unlikely to be transmitted by the family cat. Although the disease-causing parasite is found in the feces of cats who ingest raw meat, birds, mice or contaminated soil, toxoplasmosis is more likely to be transmitted when women eat raw or undercooked meat or come into contact with surfaces that have been contaminated by such meats -- or even when women come into contact with contaminated soil. Approximately 3,000 newborns per year suffer from birth defects after their mothers have acquired the infection, according to a 1999 study referenced in Dr. Kravetz's guide.

"Infection with toxoplasmosis gondii is usually asymptomatic or causes a benign, self-limited infection in immunocompetent people," Dr. Kravetz writes in the guide. "However, a pregnant woman who acquires toxoplasmosis can transmit the infection to her unborn child. It is this infection in utero which causes fear among cat owners as congenital toxoplasmosis infection can lead to miscarriage or an array of malformations at birth.

"Many pregnant women," Kravetz continues, "will try to lower their risk of acquiring toxoplasmosis by abandoning their cats. This leads to unneeded stress on an expectant mother who must now cope with the loss of her feline family members. Fortunately, cat ownership does not necessarily increase the risk of acquiring toxoplasmosis."

Dr. Duff adds that it is extremely unlikely that an indoor cat will carry toxoplasmosis. Outdoor cats have a slightly higher risk. The disease, he says, is more commonly found in uncooked or undercooked meat.

So how can an expectant mother avoid toxoplasmosis? Here are some tips:

  • Don't handle or eat uncooked or undercooked meat.
  • Clean cutting boards, counters, plates, and utensils that have been in contact with meat.
  • Keep your cat safely indoors and away from wildlife.
  • Have someone else clean the litter box daily.
  • Wear rubber gloves and follow with a thorough hand washing if you must clean the litter box. Scoop feces as soon as you can, and at least daily, since it takes one to five days for feces to become infectious.
  • Feed cats only commercially prepared cat food.

"We know that welcoming a new baby can too often mean saying goodbye to a 'first' baby, the family cat," notes The HSUS's Peterson. "Our brochure, 'Your Baby & Your Pet,' is designed to keep new babies and pets safe and healthy."

The brochure includes valuable information about ways to avoid toxoplasmosis, as well as help families prepare pets for the infant's arrival and acclimate pets once the baby comes home. For more tips, check out our Pets for Life campaign.

To receive a free copy of "Your Baby & Your Pet," send a SASE to:

The HSUS BabyPet eNews 2100 L Street NW Washington, D.C. 20037.


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