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Pregnant Women Should Avoid Cleaning Cat Litter

October 23, 2012

Toxoplasmosis is a disease caused by an organism called Toxoplasma gondii. It can infect people if they handle or eat infected raw or partially cooked meats (especially pork, mutton, and lamb), or if they accidentally ingest the eggs (called oocysts) through handling of infected soil, cat litter, etc. In pregnant women, toxoplasmosis can infect the unborn child. The most important source of infection in industrialized countries appears to be contact with meat that contains oocysts, rather than cats.

Toxoplasmosis is not common in cats, particularly domesticated cats, since the primary source of infection is through ingestion of small prey such as birds and mice. The vast majority of cats tend to show no clinical signs during infection and even their blood will test negative until the end of the period of shedding. This makes detection of the disease difficult until it is almost resolved. Clinical signs, when they do occur (rarely) in cats, include some or all of the following: fever, coughing, breathing difficulties, vomiting, diarrhea, jaundice, and neurological manifestations.

A similar situation exists in people. Most infections can only be detected with a blood test and often go undetected. Signs of the disease may include swollen lymph nodes, fever, fatigue, sore throat and headache. Toxoplasmosis is often mistaken for something else, like the flu. In fact, it is estimated that up to one-half of the general population has had an asymptomatic infection at some time in their lives.

Human infections acquired from direct contact with shedding cats are extremely rare. The major role that cats appear to play in the spread of toxoplasmosis is in the shedding of oocysts into the environment.

Two groups of people that are at risk and should avoid infection from toxoplasmosis are pregnant women who have never been exposed to toxoplasmosis and people with immunodeficiency disorders (e.g. HIV or AIDS, chemotherapy patients, geriatrics). For these people, certain minimum precautions are suggested:

  • Cats should be restricted from hunting to prevent infection. They should be fed only commercial cat food. Avoid feeding raw foods. Wearing gloves during box cleaning is a good precaution that any family member can take.
  • Cat litter should be discarded daily and only by those family members not at risk. Litter should be disposed of in a plastic bag and hands washed afterwards.
  • All meat should be cooked so that a distinct colour change is noted to indicate satisfactory cooking.
  • Persons at risk should also wash their hands after handling cats as a further precaution.

If you are concerned about the relative risks of toxoplasmosis in your area, call your veterinarian for advice.