So You’re Pregnant…with Pets. Now What?

Dr. Patty Khuly

Pregnancy and Pets
OK, not that you’re pregnant with pets, but...oh, you know what I mean: you share your home with one or more pets, and you're about to bring a new little human into the world. Congratulations! But there’s a problem, or so you’re told. Your OB/Gyn has issued you a list of concerns about your pets –– and none are good news.

Among these concerns, you might see an item or two about “appropriate” interaction with pets: don’t sleep with them in your bed. Bathe them frequently. Let your spouse or partner handle them and tend to their needs. Given that animals may carry diseases harmful to your fetus, some human docs may even suggest you take drastic measures to reduce your exposure to animals…as in re-homing them.

Here’s a verbatim example from one of my local OB/Gyn’s handouts on “Pets and Your Pregnancy”:

“We love our pets. But we should always be mindful of the risks we take when we include them in our households. The success of your pregnancy is uppermost in our minds when we urge you to minimize contact with your pets and keep your cats out of doors during this critical period of time.”

Scary, right? So what’s a responsible expectant mom to do?

As veterinarian and a woman who’s successfully endured 9 months with pets at home and at work, I’m here to tell you that NO, you don’t have to get rid of your pets during your pregnancy. You don’t have to banish your cats to the out-of-doors. You don’t have to fear interacting with them the same way that you did before you conceived.

I don’t care what your OB/Gyn says. I respond to a higher authority: the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

The CDC has issued pro-pet statements that reflect the most well-reasoned, up-to-date recommendations for the prevention of infectious diseases. I know it can be daunting to interpret the CDC’s many positions statements on the subject, which is why I’ve summarized them in a 10-point checklist below (including references, in case you’d like to print them out and ask your doc about them):

#1 Physician vs Veterinarian Training

Human physicians are trained to handle human health issues. Veterinarians, on the other hand, are educated on a variety of species. Ironically, perhaps, is the fact that the basic training of every veterinarian is much more specific to zoonotic diseases (those which may be transmitted from animals to humans) than the average med school grad’s.

Sure, an OB/Gyn may have received extra schooling in the ways in which pet-specific infectious diseases can steer a pregnancy wrong, but almost any veterinarian is far better informed on the incidence, transmission, and prevention of these diseases than your OB/Gyn. Really.

#2 Physician Responsibility

Here’s the thing: it’s your OB/Gyn who’s responsible for you and your fetus’s medical care –– not your veterinarian. Moreover, it’s YOU who are responsible for carrying out any medical recommendations (and exercising common sense along the way).

That’s why veterinarians will make recommendations about staying safe around your pets and the possibility of disease transmission but we’ll never pretend to assume the role of an OB/Gyn. We’ll always defer to their advice even when we disagree, but we may tread a fine line in our disagreements by referring you to more official sources of information (such as the CDC).

#3 Possibilities vs Probabilities

Physicians sometimes make recommendations based on possibilities rather than on probabilities. “It’s better to be safe than sorry,” they’ll often argue. And I can’t always blame them. If it’s even remotely possible for you to contract a pregnancy- or child-threatening disease from your dog or cat, their responsibility is to appropriately inform you of your risks. (It’s only the magnitude of these risks that I tend to take issue with.)

#4 Liability Issues

Understand that physicians operate within a highly litigious society. If you’re not warned about risks –– strongly, and in writing –– physicians may feel they’re setting themselves up for a lawsuit. OB/Gyns are especially sensitive to this issue due to the near certainty that they will require the services of many lawyers during their careers. (This specialty group is among the most often sued and it makes sense that they’d be sensitive!)

#5 How Far Should We Go?

There’s so much that can go wrong with any individual human pregnancy, and safer is better of course. But how far do we take that message? Living in a protective plastic bubble is not practical (nor medically advisable). And yet, were we to take many OB/Gyn’s advice on everything, we’d be living in an unrealistically ultra-safe space.

After all, bacteria, viruses and animals DO exist in our world and, in fact, we encounter them every day. How far should we go to protect ourselves against their constant presence? Given that the most likely source of a catastrophic infection may come from another human, how careful do we really need to be when living with our pets?

#6 Feline Evil!

The issue of Toxoplasma, a protozoan parasite whose fetus-harming potential is legendary, is an especially sore point between physicians and veterinarians. Because cats are both a host and a vector, it’s important to stay away from their stool once it’s 24 hours old. Since it’s the most contentious issue between vets and human doctors, I’ll include the CDC’s recommendations word for word:

“Do I have to give up my cat if I'm pregnant or planning on becoming pregnant?

No. You should follow these helpful tips to reduce your risk of environmental exposure to Toxoplasma.

  • Avoid changing cat litter if possible. If no one else can perform the task, wear disposable gloves and wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water afterwards.
  • Change the litter box daily. The Toxoplasma parasite does not become infectious until 1 to 5 days after it is shed in a cat's feces.
  • Feed your cat commercial dry or canned food, not raw or undercooked meats.
  • Keep cats indoors.
  • Avoid stray cats, especially kittens. Do not get a new cat while you are pregnant.
  • Keep outdoor sandboxes covered.
  • Wear gloves when gardening and during contact with soil or sand because it might be contaminated with cat feces that contain Toxoplasma. Wash hands thoroughly after gardening or contact with soil or sand.”

Notice that the CDC recommends we keep cats indoors, in direct contravention to what some physicians urge. Indoors is safer for us and for them too. That way they won’t be running around outside and pick up new infections.

Anyway, the primary means of Toxoplasma infection in humans is via either undercooked or raw meats that contain toxoplasma cysts or via contact with contaminated soil. Yet few physicians seem to tell women to lay off the burgers or keep off the grass.

#7 Other Diseases

I don’t mean to scare you, but it’s not just toxoplasmosis that’s dangerous. Consider that dogs and cats infected with roundworms, Salmonella, Campylobacter, Giardia or Cryptosporidium can be problematic for you too. Because a fetus’s immune system is not fully developed, and because a pregnant woman may be immunosuppressed, these common fecal-borne infections may present a greater problem than many think.

Then there’s the issue of ringworm and mange. I’ve had cause to believe that these skin infections (common in both dogs and cats) are more likely to manifest in pregnant women and immunosuppressed clients than in other individuals. No, they won’t maim your unborn, but they may make you super-itchy. Be safe: take your pet to the vet at the first sign of a skin lesion and seek out a dermatologist if any appear on you.

It’s best not to take a chance. Ideally your pets should be seen by a veterinarian if you’re anticipating or trying to get pregnant. At minimum, consider taking in a stool sample for examination.

#8 Exotic and “Pocket” Pets

Finally, I should mention the issue of rodents (mice, hamsters, rats, and guinea pigs) and the Lymphocytic Choriomeningitis Virus (LCMV). Infection with this lesser-known virus can cause birth defects and miscarriage.

That’s why the CDC recommends you leave these pets in the care of someone else or in an isolated room while you’re pregnant. Someone else should clean out the bedding, as waste can be aerosolized in the bedding material.

Strange that no one ever tells you about this one, right?

#9 Pet Products and Medications

Though we’re not sure what harm many veterinary medications and products can do to an unborn baby, the key is to play it safe. Don’t handle any parasite preventatives or insecticides directly (e.g. heartworm drugs, flea and tick treatments, etc.). Wear gloves whenever you are near these chemicals and don’t touch any area where they have been applied for at least 24 hours.

In particular, ask your veterinarian whether you need to be careful when giving your pet any medications such as eye drops or ear meds. Recognize that some drugs (such as cyclosporine eye drops) can be harmful under any condition, and not just when you’re pregnant. You should be informed, so don’t be afraid to ask!

#10 Safe Baby Prep

The problem with pregnancy and pets, from a veterinarian’s point of view, is not only that many recommendations strike unnecessary fear into the hearts of a pet’s family. It’s that this fear sets up conditions whereby our pets are more readily marginalized when the “real baby” arrives. That means more pets surrendered to shelters or left to fend for themselves outdoors.

Many families assume that their pets will be a hazard to their children and so take steps to isolate the animals from the new member of the household. But pets are unlikely to present a serious hazard to the baby as long as we’re careful.

There’s a lot of information out there on how to prepare your pets for the arrival of a baby. One of the most complete online resources for these issues may be found at Dogs & Storks, a blog that regularly covers baby and pet interaction issues.

So those are my top 10 points on the pets and pregnancy debate. Do you have any more you’d like to add?

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