Q: I am pregnant and I like to garden. Free-roaming cats defecate in my garden, and I worry that they will give me toxoplasmosis that will hurt my baby. How can I protect myself?
A: Toxoplasma, a one-celled parasite that encysts in the muscles of warm-blooded animals, causes toxoplasmosis. Cats acquire Toxoplasma by eating infected mice or other animals, and then excrete the parasite; but only during the first few weeks after initial exposure.
If a previously unexposed pregnant woman ingests the infective form of Toxoplasma, the parasite can cause a miscarriage or brain damage in her unborn baby. A woman exposed to Toxoplasma before she becomes pregnant has antibodies that protect her unborn child.
One in four Americans has already been exposed, and if you are one of them, you probably don’t have to worry. Consider asking your obstetrician to check your antibody levels.
The most common way Americans get toxoplasmosis is from eating undercooked meat. So it’s important to fully cook meat and wash your hands, utensils and cutting boards.
You also can ingest Toxoplasma if you eat unwashed vegetables or fruits, drink contaminated water or touch your mouth while gardening. So be sure to wear gloves while gardening, wash your hands afterward and wash all produce.
Pregnant women with cats should have someone else clean litter boxes, or they should wear gloves and a mask while handling this chore—and, of course, wash their hands. Toxoplasma takes at least a day to become infective, so scooping the litter box every day further reduces risk.
For more information on toxoplasmosis, visit the Centers for Disease Control website.
Lee Pickett, V.M.D. practices companion animal medicine in Pennsylvania. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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