Pets may carry diseases that put both a pregnant woman and her foetus at risk. Is it safe to purchase a pet during pregnancy and what if you already have a pet at home? Specialist Obstetrician & Gynaecologist Dr Ann Tan and Natasha Lim, 1st year veterinary medicine and surgery student, share on pet safety during pregnancy.
There are a few animals which a pregnant mum should keep away from during pregnancy, because of possible exposure to toxoplasmosis. One typical example is cats.
Typically, those planning for a pregnancy would not knowingly put themselves or their babies at risk. More often than not, patients who had contracted toxoplasmosis do not own cats but have somehow managed to contract the disease through the environment.
As the saying goes: “Dogs are a man's best friend”, and there is usually no reason why a dog cannot continue to be a part of the family when one is expecting. Even with domestic cats, there is also no reason why they cannot continue to be a part of the growing family as long as one takes the necessary precautions.
What are the possible consequences of exposure to pet infections?
Toxoplasmosis is an infection caused by a parasite and it can be carried by cats in their stools. One can get toxoplasmosis through exposure to the cat’s litter or by eating partially cooked meats, especially pork or lamb.
Animals are infected by eating infected meat or ingesting the faeces of a cat. Pregnant mums can be infected through contact with infected animals and subsequently transmitting the disease to her foetus. Symptoms of toxoplasmosis mimic a common cold with headaches, flu-like symptoms of fever, fatigue, sore throat and muscle aches.
People who are infected with toxoplasmosis do not usually experience any symptoms. However, a pregnant woman infected for the first time, stands a high chance of passing the infection to her baby, resulting in birth defects.
If the foetus is infected in the third trimester, it will appear healthy at birth but may in fact be already congenitally infected. Eye diseases may develop later on in childhood. If the baby’s immunity is suppressed or deficient, the parasite will reactivate. Toxoplasmic encephalitis may ensue, with symptoms like headaches, confusion, motor weakness and fever.
Pet rodents can be infected with LCMV (lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus) through contact with wild rodents. The risk of LCMV infection from pet rodents is low. People are more commonly infected via contact with wild rodents and/or their secretions and excretions. Infection during the 1st or 2nd trimester of pregnancy may result in severe illness and abnormal foetal development.
Will a woman be at risk of getting allergies from a pet when she’s pregnant? Will baby get these allergies or be more prone to allergies when it is born?
Most allergies are genetically predisposed. If a woman is already allergic to specific allergens before she is pregnant, her allergy reactions towards the allergens will be similar or slightly elevated due to increased sensitivity. Babies can develop allergies through multiple exposures but are usually affected through parents, genetically.
What safety precautions should a pregnant woman take if she has an existing pet?
- Keep pet rodents in a separate part of the house and away from food preparation and living areas.
- Have your partner walk the hyper or huge dog to prevent accidents.
- Keep domestic house pets away from wild animals to prevent cross infection.
- Avoid adopting strays, wild or exotic animals.
- Feed existing pets canned or commercial pet food. Never feed them raw or under-cooked meats.
- Pregnant women should avoid cleaning the rodent's cages and avoid prolonged stays in the room where the rodent resides.
- Get someone else to clean up animal litter, especially the cat litter.
- Always wear gardening gloves when gardening to prevent contact with soil which may be infected by pet stools.
- When applying flea and tick treatments, use gloves as a precaution or get someone else to do this. After application, keep your pet off the furniture and carpets for the next three hours.
- Do not give pet baths or clean their cages in the kitchen sink.
- Good hygiene! Always wash your hands and scrub underneath the nails after handling pet food or your pet.
- Take your pet to regular health checks.
Should a women unfortunately get infected, are there medications that an obgyn can prescribe to treat her? What are the chances of complete recovery without adverse effects on both mom and baby?
If a woman gets infected with toxoplasmosis and it is a fresh infection, she needs to start treatment as soon as possible to minimise any detrimental effects the infection might have on the baby.
If it is unclear how long the infection has been around, it is still necessary to seek treatment and observe the baby for any signs of toxoplasmosis infection through an ultrasound scan. Foetal blood sampling could also be done to check for foetal infection.
Is it better not to have pets during pregnancy, nursing, and while baby is still young?
Having a baby is no reason to give your current pet away! Perhaps, you could arrange for a temporary adoption of your pet by a responsible person, if necessary.
When the baby is born, a pet could be just the thing that helps the child's development. However, one should probably not have a new born and a new pet at the same time. New pets are untrained and stand higher chance of carrying a harmful infection.
Maybe Baby would like to thank Dr Ann Tan, Specialist Obstetrician & Gynaecologist from the Women & Fetal Centre, and Ms Natasha Lim, 1st year veterinary medicine and surgery student, University of Edinburgh, for their inputs in this article.
More Pet Precaution Facts
Dogs – Dogs are generally safe unless they have a worm or parasite infection. Also, if the dog is hyper or rough and likes to jump on your pregnant tummy (especially when you’re lying down or sitting in a chair), retrain it immediately to prevent it from causing you to fall and hurt yourself.
Cats – You may possibly be immune to toxoplasmosis if you’ve been a cat owner for a long time but do go for a blood test for immunity before getting pregnant if you are a cat owner.
Reptiles (snakes, lizards, turtles, iguanas) – Salmonella can be transmitted through contact with the faeces of reptiles. Ensure that you don’t put your pet reptile in the same room as food or food prep areas, especially when the reptile’s out of its cage. Disinfect areas where the reptile defecates.
Birds – Infections that can pass to mom and baby are salmonella, chlamydiosis and protozoal. Take your pet bird to the vet to rule out these infections, and do get someone else to clean the bird cage.
Exotic pets – Never take on an exotic pet before you seek a veterinarian’s advice.