Cats, Pregnancy, and What to Do About Toxo

BY Lydia Medeiros,Susan Baker,Patricia Kendall | June 20, 2014

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Susan Baker OARDC

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If a woman is first exposed to Toxo during or shortly before pregnancy, she has a 20 to 50% chance of passing it on to her unborn baby. Cats are the carrier and exposure to the parasite in the cat’s feces can lead to food contamination, and then human exposure.

What is Toxoplasma gondii? (aka Toxo)

It is a parasite found in raw and undercooked meat, unwashed fruits and vegetables, water, dust, soil, dirty cat litter boxes, and outdoor places where cat feces can be found. Cats are the major carrier of Toxo and will excrete the Toxo parasite into the environment. Toxo is able to survive outside of a cat and in the environment for several months. Household disinfectants will not kill the parasite [reference]. Cooking contaminated food to an internal temperature of 160°F (71°C) will destroy any parasites that might be present. Because Toxo is found in raw and undercooked meat, it’s important to avoid tasting meat during the cooking procedure. Freezing food at 10°F (-12°C) for at least four days will also destroy the Toxo parasite.

Why is Toxo a Concern during pregnancy?

If a woman is first exposed to Toxo during or shortly before pregnancy, she has a 20 to 50% chance of passing it on to her unborn baby. It is estimated that 85% of pregnant women in the U.S. have not previously been exposed to Toxo, and therefore need to avoid becoming exposed to the parasite during pregnancy. The other 15% have previously been exposed to Toxo and have developed immunity against the parasite.

In the United States it is estimated that 22.5% of the population 12 years and older have been infected with Toxoplasma. In various places throughout the world, it has been shown that up to 95% of some populations have been infected with Toxoplasma.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

How can Toxo affect the baby?

If a pregnant woman is infected with Toxo early in pregnancy, the risk of passing it to one’s unborn child is very low, but if this happens there is a high risk of miscarriage [reference]. If the infection occurs later in pregnancy, the woman may not miscarry but the baby could be affected. Babies born infected with Toxo may have problems with vision, hearing or could have delayed mental development. Some children may appear normal at birth, but develop brain or eye problems years later. Early diagnosis and treatment of children infected with Toxo is very important to minimize Toxo’s negative effects.

How Do I Protect Me and my Family from Getting Infected with Toxo?

According to the CDC and research completed at Ohio State University and Colorado State University [reference], follow these steps to prevent infections with Toxo.

  1. Cook food to safe temperatures. Use a thermometer to verify that the safe temperature has been reached before you handle or eat.
    • Whole Cuts, except Poultry – 145°F (63°C) with a 3 minute rest before carving.
    • Ground Meat – 160°F (71°C), no rest period needed.
    • All Poultry – 165°F (74°C) with a 3 minute rest before carving.
  2. Freeze meat for several days at sub-zero (0°F) temperatures before cooking to reduce chance of infection.
  3. Peel or wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating, especially home grown produce from gardens where cats may have defecated.
  4. Wash cutting boards, dishes, counters, utensils, and hands with hot soapy water after contact with raw meat, poultry, seafood, or unwashed fruits or vegetables. Sanitizer does not kill Toxo, but will control other pathogens that cause foodborne illness, like Listeria and Salmonella. Also, wash hands after contact with a cat or after cleaning the litter box.
  5. If pregnant, have another family member clean the cat litter box.
Are you a Health-Care provider or a Teacher who works with pregnant women?

We have a resource for you to use in your practice or classroom that includes a lesson on Toxo and pregnancy. The Healthy Baby, Healthy Me educational curriculum was designed for you. The entire curriculum is available to you for FREE. Go to the Freebies page and click on Healthy Baby, Healthy Me (HBHM). To read more on Toxo and other foodborne parasites that can cause human illness, check out these OhioLine factsheets.

Toxoplasma gondii: A parasite that Causes Toxoplasmosis

Parasites: Cryptosporidium parvum, Cyclospora, and Giardia lamblia

To read more about the research on Toxo and preganancy that was completed at The Ohio State University and Colorado State University, check out these journal articles:

Awareness and acceptance of current food safety recommendations during pregnancy

Health care providers’ attitudes toward current food safety recommendations for pregnant women

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