From the moment a person finds out they're pregnant, they are faced with a long list of do's and don'ts. On that list is the recommendation that pregnant people should not scoop the cat litter box.
Why shouldn’t pregnant people scoop the litter box?
The cat litter box poses a risk of infection with the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which causes the disease toxoplasmosis. The parasite is quite common, and it's estimated that more than 40 million people have it in the US alone. Most healthy people will show either no symptoms or minor flu-like symptoms, and have no idea they were ever infected.
But people who are infected just prior to or during pregnancy can pass the parasite on to their unborn children. In this situation, the consequences can be dire: eye damage, blindness, brain damage, and mental impairment. Infected pregnant people can be treated with medication, and both parent and baby should be closely monitored thereafter. If affected, the baby may not show signs until well after birth.
Cat feces pose a low but serious risk
Despite the high number of infections in the US, it's not cats or the litter box that is most likely to transmit the parasite.
According to the CDC, people are more likely to get toxoplasmosis from eating raw meat or gardening.
Cats themselves typically contract the parasite by eating raw meat (think mice, birds, and other prey) or soil, and they're not the only animals that can carry it. The difference is, cats are the only species that excrete the parasite when it is in its infectious stage. They do this in the litter box, in your home, for up to three weeks if they are infected.
Oftentimes, cats get exposed to the parasite when they are young, so they are immune to it later in life. Even if you let your cat venture outdoors, it's typically only on the first infection that they'll shed the parasite through their feces. Your vet can perform bloodwork to tell if your cat is infected with Toxoplasma and treat any infection.
Protect yourself from infection
Avoid interacting with the litter box
When it comes to pregnant people with cats, the advice is pretty simple: Pregnant people should avoid interacting with the litter box if possible. If they must manage the litter box, a pregnant person should wear disposable gloves and wash their hands with soap afterward.
If you are worried your cat has recently contracted toxoplasmosis, it's key that a non-pregnant person clean the litter box frequently to remove the parasite before it becomes infectious 1-5 days after being excreted. That means both scooping to remove feces and sanitizing surfaces to remove debris where the microscopic parasite can live.
Keep cats indoors
By keeping your cats indoors, they are less likely to encounter the parasite through other animals' feces and raw meat.
Take precautions with gardening
Since the parasite can live in soil, pregnant people should be vigilant about wearing gloves and washing their hands after gardening. Thoroughly wash produce fresh from the garden. Protect raised garden beds from cats and wildlife by surrounding them with chicken wire or something similar.
Cook your meat
Pregnant people should ensure any meat that they eat has been cooked until it reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit. All kitchen utensils and cutting boards should be washed thoroughly after contact with raw meat.
If you feed your cat raw meat, make sure to freeze it for at least 24 hours before serving it, which will kill any Toxoplasma that may be present. It's also best to feed your cat in a designated area and keep them off counters to prevent contamination.
A note on kittens and strays
Because cats are most likely to transmit the parasite when they have never been infected, pregnant people should be cautious of adopting a kitten or taking in strays during pregnancy.
The ideal solution is a self-cleaning litter box
Along with that long list of pregnancy do's and don'ts can come guilt about asking others to do all the things you're no longer “allowed” to do. You might find yourself starting every other sentence with, “I'm sorry, can you also…” to the point that you just start doing things yourself, even though you shouldn't. Or, that person who is nice enough to take on more chores becomes overworked and winds up unable to meet the demands.
But the fact is, not cleaning the litter box on time can have unfortunate kitty consequences (think protest puddles, misplaced waste, and even urinary disease). Either way, it's not good for you, your family, or your pets.
When it comes to loathsome litter box duty, there's a better solution for everyone involved. An automatic, self-cleaning litter box like Litter-Robot does the work for you, so no one has to bend, scoop, lift, or inhale litter dust. Your cat will be happy having a clean place to go every time, and all anyone has to do is gather up the garbage bag and toss it.
The more you know...
The potential effects of toxoplasmosis can sound alarming, but straightforward preventative measures can reduce the threat of Toxoplasma significantly. You don't have to give up your cat or dramatically change your lifestyle. Make these minor adjustments for a healthy pregnancy and happy cat. And, with a self-cleaning litter box like Litter-Robot 4, you don't have to feel guilty about freeing yourself from the chore of litter box scooping.
For more information about toxoplasmosis, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's FAQs here.
Can cats give people toxoplasmosis?
Yes, Toxoplasma gondii is zoonotic, meaning that it can be passed from animal to human. It is spread via contact with cat feces, but minor lifestyle adjustments can reduce or completely eliminate the cat-associated risks.
Do I have to get rid of my cat if I’m pregnant?
No. If you are pregnant and have a cat, start by ensuring that your cat’s lifestyle eliminates contamination risk, and have someone else scoop the cat litter (or invest in a self-cleaning litter box). Schedule an appointment with your OBGYN and your veterinarian to come up with a plan if needed.
Is toxoplasmosis treatable for my cat?
Yes, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian to test and treat your cat if you suspect toxoplasmosis.