Yes, it’s true.  You really are off the hook for cleaning the cat litter box while you are pregnant.  While the risk of acquiring a toxoplasmosis infection from a cat litter box is very low, it makes sense to avoid the task if possible while pregnant. 

What is Toxoplasmosis?

Toxoplasmosis is an infection caused by the parasite Toxoplasma gondii.  If this infection happens for the first time during pregnancy, it can lead to birth defects, developmental problems, or even miscarriage. 

Cats are the only animals that are deemed definitive hosts of T. gondii – this means that they are the only animals in which the parasite can complete its reproductive cycle.  When cats become infected, they shed millions of parasites through their feces for upwards of 3 weeks.  

Pregnant women can also become exposed through certain foods.  Raw or undercooked meat is likely the main source of infection for pregnant women.  Other sources include unpasteurized goat milk and raw oysters, clams or mussels.  

Symptoms of Toxoplasmosis

An infection from T. gondii usually does not have symptoms.  If there are symptoms, the most common complaint is swollen lymph nodes in the neck.  Other symptoms are mild and include: fever, chills, sweats, headaches, muscle pains, or sore throat.  

What Happens If The Fetus Gets Infected?

The risk of miscarriage is about 0.5% in pregnant women who get toxoplasmosis.  

Most newborns with toxoplasmosis do not have symptoms.  However, infants may have serious problems such such as:

  • Chorioretinitis – inflammation of parts of the eye and can lead to vision loss
  • Hydrocephalus – abnormal build of up fluid in the brain 
  • Intracranial calcifications – abnormal calcium deposits in the brain 

The changes seen in the brain can lead to developmental delays, intellectual disabilities, or seizures. 

Prevention

Preventing infection from T. gondii is focussed on avoiding infection sources.  

Have someone else change the cat litter box daily.  If this is not possible, wear gloves and wash your hands with soap and water afterwards.  Fresh cat feces cannot transmit the parasite, but feces more than a day old can transmit T. gondii

Wash your hands with soap and water after exposure to soil, sand, raw meat or unwashed vegetables.  Wear gloves when gardening or handling sand in a sandbox.  

Cook all meat thoroughly.  

Avoid drinking untreated water, especially in less developed countries.  

There are treatments available if you become infected during pregnancy

This post was co-authored by Erin Manchuk, BScPharm, BCGP and Stephanie Liu, MD, MSc, CCFP, BHSc.