Toxoplasma gondii is the one-celled protozoan parasite that causes toxoplasmosis in both cats and in pregnant women. Toxoplasmosis is usually a mild self-limiting disease, causing flu- or cold-like symptoms in both cats and people, but the disease is also fairly well known as a threat to an unborn child. Fortunately, there are simple steps a woman can take to protect her child from infection.
Toxoplasmosis in Cats
Most often, cats infected with toxoplasmosis show no symptoms of the disease. Cats acutely infected with Toxoplasma may exhibit symptoms including fever, muscle stiffness, joint pain, swollen lymph nodes and a painful abdomen. However, these symptoms are frequently so mild that they go unnoticed.
Toxoplasmosis in the cat may infect its intestinal tract, causing the cat to shed oocysts (an egg-like stage of the life cycle of the Toxoplasma organism) in the feces. These oocysts may be infective for a person who handles this cat’s feces. Cats actively shedding oocysts may or may not experience diarrhea.
Cats generally shed oocysts in their feces for 5-14 days when initially infected and typically do not shed oocysts again unless the cat becomes immuno-suppressed.
Toxoplasmosis in People
People can get toxoplasmosis in one of two ways:
- ingestion of oocysts from the feces of a cat
- ingestion of toxoplasmosis organisms found in uncooked meat
The typical toxoplasmosis infection in a person is similar to that seen in a cat and is usually passed off as a cold or the flu. However, if the person infected with Toxoplasma is a pregnant woman, this infection can place the child at risk. People who have compromised immune systems may also develop more serious symptoms.
When a woman is infected with toxoplasmosis for the first time when she is pregnant, the disease can cross the placenta and cause miscarriage or stillbirth, blindness or severe neurological disease in the child, depending on the stage of the pregnancy.
Protecting Against Toxoplasmosis During Pregnancy
Simple steps taken when a woman is pregnant or planning to become pregnant can help avoid the tragedy of toxoplasmosis infection in the child.
- Change the litter box daily and always wear gloves when handling the litter. Better yet, have someone else change the litter.
- Wash hands after handling household cats.
- Always wear gloves when gardening. Toxoplasmosis oocysts can be found in garden soil also.
- Do not dispose of used cat litter in the garden or yard.
- Do not allow cats to eat raw meat or hunt prey animals.
- Do not drink raw milk, particularly goat’s milk. Do not allow household cats to drink raw milk either.
- Do not allow cats access to areas where food-producing animals are kept so that the food-producing animals do not become infected with toxoplasmosis from the cats.
Toxoplasmosis, though normally a mild disease, can be a threat to a pregnant woman and her unborn child. Following the steps outlined can help protect both the mother and the unborn baby from unnecessary tragedy.