How to manage your pregnancy AND live well with pets (Part 2)

By Patty Khuly, DVM on Jan. 30, 2009

No, you don’t have to get rid of your pets during your pregnancy. You don’t have to fear interacting with them as you did before you conceived. I don’t care what your OB/Gyn says. I respond to a higher authority...the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). 

The CDC has issued statements that reflect the most well-reasoned recommendations for the prevention of infectious diseases. I would have a hard time trusting any physician who issues proclamations in contravention of its sage, science-based advice.

The following discussion of points 7 through 10 on my ten-point checklist for living well with pets during pregnancy is based on the CDC’s official statements...with some references, in case you’d like to print them out and ask your doc about them.

7. Cat diseases

Here’s where some docs spin their wheels. It’s the issue of Toxoplasma, a protozoan parasite whose fetus-harming potential is legendary. Because cats are a host and a vector, it’s important to stay away from their stool once it’s 24 hours old. Because it’s the most contentious issue, I’ll included the CDC’s recommendations, verbatim:

"Do I have to give up my cat if I'm pregnant or planning on becoming pregnant?"

No. You should follow these helpful tips to reduce your risk of environmental exposure to Toxoplasma.

  • Avoid changing cat litter if possible. If no one else can perform the task, wear disposable gloves and wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water afterwards.
  • Change the litter box daily. The Toxoplasma parasite does not become infectious until 1 to 5 days after it is shed in a cat's feces.
  • Feed your cat commercial dry or canned food, not raw or undercooked meats.
  • Keep cats indoors.
  • Avoid stray cats, especially kittens. Do not get a new cat while you are pregnant.
  • Keep outdoor sandboxes covered.
  • Wear gloves when gardening and during contact with soil or sand because it might be contaminated with cat feces that contain Toxoplasma. Wash hands thoroughly after gardening or contact with soil or sand.”

Notice that the CDC recommends we keep cats indoors, in direct contravention to what some physicians urge. Indoors is safer for us and for them, too. That way they won’t be running about picking up new infections.

In this section I’ll also quote Megan (a Dolittler reader who will imminently enter the supply of veterinarians once she graduates in May):

“Here's the deal with toxo. Only a cat who has recently acquired toxoplasma sheds the oocysts (infectious eggs). The cat sheds the eggs for 2 to 3 weeks following an infection, and then the parasite encysts in the tissues of the cat's body, where it remains inactive (although there are rare reports of immunosuppressed cats that have resumed shedding oocysts).

The way that a fetus is affected by toxoplasma DUE TO CAT EXPOSURE is if a) the mother is exposed to a cat that is actively shedding oocysts AND b) the mother has never before been exposed to toxoplasma. 

If you are a woman who is concerned about toxo, you can go to your doctor and have a toxo titer drawn (because there is no risk to your fetus if you have already been exposed prior to pregnancy). 

You could also have your cat tested at the vet for a toxo titer, which could give you an idea of if and when your cat was exposed. Detection of one kind of antibody against toxo indicates that the cat has an active infection, while detection of another indicates that the cat had an infection in the past and is unlikely to be actively shedding oocysts.

The primary means of Toxoplasma infection in humans [is by] eating undercooked (or uncooked) meats containing toxoplasma cysts or [by] contact with soil contaminated with oocysts.”

Thank you, Megan. Couldn’t have said it better. I’ve said it before: I hope whoever hires you when you graduate pays you A LOT. 

8. Dog (and other pet) diseases

In this section I’ll simply reiterate some of the raw meat points made above: Don’t handle raw meats if this is what you feed your dogs. Or, if you, do, wear gloves or wash your hands thoroughly. Alternatively, you can take Megan’s advice to see if you’ve already been exposed to Toxoplasma. If you have you can practically handle raw meats with impunity. 

Stool, however, may still present an issue in dogs and cats infected with roundworms, Salmonella, Campylobacter, Giardia or Cryptosporidium. Because a fetus’s immune system is not fully developed and because a pregnant woman may be immunosuppressed, these more common, fecal-oral route infections may present a problem. 

Again...just don’t play with stool and wear gloves or wash your hands after gardening. And take any pets with diarrhea to the vet to have them checked out. OK?

Then there’s the issue of ringworm and mange. I’ve had cause to find that both of these common skin infections (in dogs or cats) are more likely to manifest in pregnant women and immunosuppressed clients than in other humans. No, they won’t maim your unborn but they may give you a horrible case of the itchies and unsightlies. Take your pet to the vet at the first sign of a skin lesion and seek out a dermatologist if any appear on you. 

Ideally, your pets should be seen by a veterinarian if you’re working on getting pregnant.  At minimum, consider taking in a stool sample for examination. 

Finally, I should mention the issue of rodents (mice, hamsters, rats and guinea pigs) and the Lymphocytic Choriomeningitis Virus (LCMV). Infection with this lesser-known virus can cause birth defects and miscarriage. That’s why the CDC recommends you leave these pets in the care of someone else or in an isolated room while you’re pregnant. Someone else should clean out the bedding, as it can be aerosolized in the bedding material. Here’s more info from the CDC on this.

9. Pet products and medications

Though we’re not sure what many veterinary medications and products can do to harm an unborn baby, the key is to play it safe. Don’t handle any parasitacides and/or insecticides directly (heartworm drugs, flea and tick meds, etc.). Wear gloves. Don’t touch any area where it’s been applied for at least 24 hours. And ask your veterinarian whether you need to be especially careful with eye drops, ear meds or any other drug. 

Recognize that some drugs (like cyclosporine eye drops) can be harmful (under any condition, not just when you’re pregnant) and you should know! Ask!!

10. Safe baby prep

The problem of pregnancy and pets, from a veterinarian’s point of view, is not only that many recommendations strike fear, unnecessarily, into the heart of a pet’s family. It’s that this fear sets up conditions whereby our pets are more readily marginalized when “the real baby” arrives. That means more pets surrendered to shelters or left to fend for themselves out of doors.

Many families assume that their pets will be a hazard to their children and they take steps to isolate them from the center of the household. But our pets are unlikely to become a serious liability to the baby as long as we’re careful about bringing baby into the fold. 

There’s a lot of information out there on how to prepare your pets for the arrival of a baby in the household. One of the most complete online resources for these issues may be found at Dogs & Storks, a blog that details baby and pet interaction issues with regularity. 

That’s my top ten...any more you want to add?


Patty Khuly, DVM


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