There are many doubts about pregnancy and the illness toxoplasmosis that have become common since the arrival of internet and thanks to numerous sources of dubious quality. Here at FAADA we want to respond to the main questions about toxoplasmosis when we live with a cat in order to dispel all doubts.
Toxoplasmosis is an illness caused by a parasite from the coccidia family called Toxoplasma gondii. It can live in the cells of a large variety of animal species, such as pigs, sheep, rodents, birds, cats and people. Only in cats does it sexually reproduce and thus eliminate the oocysts (the eggs that the parasites come from) from the digestive system. In other species, the parasite remains as a cyst in the individual’s muscles.
In healthy people the parasite has very little effect, similar to that of a cold, and after the first infection, he or she becomes immune for the rest of their life. That is to say, they never suffer from this disease again, the same as varicella.
Most people don’t know if they have had toxoplasmosis or not, generally it only gets discovered when antibodies against Toxoplasma are detected in an analysis. This is the case for pregnant women, they are routinely tested to see if they have these antibodies or not. It is important to have this test because pregnant women in contact with the parasite for the first time may cause miscarriage and deformities in the foetus (there is a 40% chance that the parasite will reach the foetus).
If the test comes out positive it means that you have already had contact with the parasite and your body already has the antibodies to defeat it should there be further contact, therefore there is nothing to worry about. In recent years the incidence in people in Spain has been between 9% and 22% (in other words, most of the population is negative).
If the test comes out negative it means that you have never had contact with the parasite before and therefore, if you have contact with it during pregnancy, especially in the first and second trimesters, there could be consequences for the foetus. In such case you should take precautions to avoid infection. Although many people believe it is the case, getting rid of your cat is not at all necessary.
The primary cause of contracting toxoplasmosis is the consumption of meat (30-63% of cases of infection are due to this). The second most common cause is through contact with earth (6-17% of cases).
Toxoplasma gondii can be contracted in two ways:
For oocysts to be infective they must be sporulated. This happens from 24 hours to 5 days after an infected cat defecates during the period of elimination. This elimination period only occurs in cats which have been infected for the first time after 3-10 days and lasts 2-3 weeks.
Cats get infected by consuming contaminated meat. Therefore, if you want to prevent your cat from contracting the parasite, it would be best to neither allow it to hunt nor give it raw meat to eat.
To avoid the primary type of transmission it is recommended not to eat raw meat and to wash your hands thoroughly if you have handled it.
To avoid the second type of transmission, make sure you don’t ingest contaminated faeces. In order to do that you should wash anything coming out of the ground thoroughly, such as vegetables, to get rid of small pieces of soil which may contain oocysts.
Another important precaution is to wash your hands thoroughly after having handled soil, for example when doing the gardening or if you pet a cat. What is more, if the person lives with cats, the faeces have to cleared away every day and the tray disinfected, ideally this should be done by one of the people living at home, who is not pregnant.
For a cat to mean a risk to the normal monitoring of a pregnancy or the good health of the baby the following factors all have to be in play at the same time:
The steps that you are really in control of are 5 and 6. The prevention of these factors is very simple and actually constitutes a healthy habit for anyone, wash your hands.
You are much more likely to contract toxoplasmosis from consuming meat (30-63% of cases of infection are down to this). The second most frequent cause is through contact with soil (6-17% of cases).
A study carried out in different parts of Europe found that contact with cats is not a risk factor towards contracting toxoplasmosis.
Guía de la Sociedad Española de Infectología Pediátrica para el diagnóstico y tratamiento de la toxoplasmosis congénita (Spanish Association of Paedriatics)
Prevalencia e incidencia de la infección por Toxoplasma Gondii en mujeres en edad fértil (Spanish Magazine of Public Health)
Sources of toxoplasma infection in pregnant women (A.J.C. Cook)