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UC Davis Warns Pregnant Woman of Cat Disease

The University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine recently offered tips for pregnant women who may not be aware that cats can carry a parasite that could cause fetal hydrocephalus, or inflamma­tion of a fetus' brain.

Cats can pick up the para­site, Toxoplasma gondii, from eat­ing infected prey or meat, or by coming into contact with infect ed feces.

Veterinarians at UC Davis say it's not necessary to get rid of a beloved cat while pregnant. But a pregnant woman should avoid all contact with cat feces, keep cats indoors, feed them a diet of commercial food and wear rubber gloves while gardening in outdoor soil that may be contaminated with cat feces.

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Toxoplasma gondii (toxoplasmosis)

Toxoplasma gondii has very low host specificity, and it will probably infect almost any mammal. It has also been reported from birds, and has been found in virtually every country of the world.

Like most of the Apicomplexa, Toxoplasma is an obligate intracellular parasite.

Its life cycle includes two phases called the intestinal (or enteroepithelial) and extraintestinal phases.

The intestinal phase occurs in cats only (wild as well as domesticated cats) and produces "oocysts."  The extraintestinal phase occurs in all infected animals (including cats) and produces "tachyzoites" and, eventually, "bradyzoites" or "zoitocysts."

The disease toxoplasmosis can be transmitted by ingestion of oocysts (in cat feces) or bradyzoites (in raw or undercooked meat).

In most humans infected with Toxoplasma, the disease is asymptomatic. However, under some conditions, toxoplasmosis can cause serious pathology, including hepatitis, pneumonia, blindness, and severe neurological disorders. This is especially true in individuals whose immune systems are compromised (e.g., AIDS patients).

Toxoplasmosis can also be transmitted transplacentally resulting in a spontaneous abortion, a still born, or a child that is severely handicapped mentally and/or physically.


Why is cleaning the litter box a concern for pregnant women and immunocompromised individuals? The answer lies in a protozoan parasite called Toxoptema gondi.

The organism can cause an infection that can be transmitted to the human fetus, resulting in miscarriage or birth defects. It also can lead to life threatening pneumonia or neurologic diseases in people with compromised immune systems.

According to "Toxoplasmosis in Cats," a brochure by the Cornell Feline Health Center (Ithaca, N.Y.).

Cats can develop toxoplasma infections after eating infected rodents and birds. Most cats, particularly indoor cats, never become sick, and less than I percent of cats that do become infected shed cysts.

Furthermore, the cysts don't become infectious until 24 hours to four days after being passed in the feces.

Therefore, if feces are scooped daily and if rubber gloves and a mask are worn while scooping, people run little risk of exposure to toxoplasma from infected cats.