For years now, dads-to-be have been stuck with the job of cleaning the litter box, to minimize the risk of their pregnant partners being exposed to toxoplasmosis, a parasitic disease that causes mild flu-like symptoms in most of us but can seriously harm a growing fetus.
But a Kansas State University veterinarian, Kathy Gaughan, says that most cases of toxoplasmosis come from eating undercooked meat, not touching a litter box. And it takes 24 hours for the organism in a cat's feces to become infective, so one of the best ways to prevent contracting it is to clean the litter box daily.
"Within that 24-hour window, the disease is not dangerous to humans," says Gaughan. "Of course, the owner has to practice good hygiene after cleaning the box."
Toxoplasmosis doesn't generally cause serious lasting health effects in adults, and is often misdiagnosed as mononucleosis or a bad cold. However, it can cause serious health problems for a fetus. Early in a pregnancy, says Gaughan, toxoplasmosis can cause miscarriage. If infection occurs late in a pregnancy, the disease can damage a baby's central nervous system.
Here are some other precautions moms-to-be and new moms should take to be safe:
- Keep a child's sandbox covered to prevent cats from using it.
- Wear gloves while working in the garden, and wash all backyard (or farmstand) produce in case neighborhood cats have used the soil as a litter box.
- Don't feed cats undercooked meat or allow them to hunt. A cat can acquire the disease from eating infected meat.
- Don't eat raw or undercooked meat, and wash your hands after handling meat.
- Always wash your hands with soap after cleaning out the litter box. (Or just have your partner keep doing the job!)