Experts say cats pose no danger to women
By Maria Kegel
JAKARTA (JP): Pet cats have been given away by many women, pregnant or otherwise, because of a concern about the disease toxoplasmosis. But do the facts support what is often a painful decision?
An informal survey conducted among expatriates of several nationalities and Indonesians living in Jakarta revealed most people had a limited knowledge and/or did not know the correct facts on the parasite, toxoplasma, and the disease, toxoplasmosis, resulting from it.
All who were questioned said they were familiar with the name of the disease and that it could harm unborn babies. But no one knew how the disease was transmitted to humans, or that eating meat was another source of infection, which, experts say, is an easier form of transmission.
Some said they believed if they held or petted a cat, they would become infected.
Dr. Siti Zaenab, who shares a veterinary practice in Kemang, South Jakarta, with her husband Dr. Gunadi Setiadarma and another veterinarian, has heard similar misconceptions.
"People think that even if a cat touches them they can get the disease," she said. "They are not well-informed, and women who are planning to have a family come to the office specially to ask how they can get it (the disease) and if it's safe to keep a cat."
But Dr. Siti said she had come across only a few toxoplasma cases in cats.
So where exactly does the parasite exist, and how easy is it to get infected?
Toxoplasma is found in the feces of some cats, undercooked beef and even undercooked bear meat.
Getting the spores from any of these sources into your mouth can lead to infection.
Cats can contract the parasite from catching mice or other wild animals. But it is hard to detect if your cat has the parasite as they seldom produce noticeable effects in the infectious stages of the first few weeks. Nevertheless, spores can be shed into their feces. Once in the litter box, it takes one to five days before spores develop.
Therefore, it is recommended that the litter box be cleaned daily to reduce the risk of contracting the disease.
Dr. Gunadi said people who eat undercooked meat are more at risk of toxoplasmosis than cat owners.
In the United States, most human cases of the disease come from eating undercooked meat from contaminated animals or from eating unwashed vegetables, according to Dr. Susan Hall from the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights.
"Studies I've read indicate there is no correlation with the incidence of toxoplasmosis and cat ownership," she said. "Cats are unfairly blamed as a problem because they are what is known as a definitive host."
She said that even in the United States, doctors still tell pregnant women to get rid of their cats.
Dr. Siti said since she was a child she has had cats. "Up until I was eight months pregnant with my first child, I had four cats sleeping at night with me."
If a woman has owned a cat for some time before becoming pregnant, she has most likely built up her resistance to the disease through exposure, which would lead to the development of antibodies, Dr. Gunadi said. "However, if a woman is pregnant and then adopts a cat, she may be at a higher risk."
Dr. Siti said that during the seven month of her second pregnancy she developed a fever and was dizzy. "At the time, I was helping at a cat shelter and had adopted a stray kitten, so a doctor recommended I take an antibody test, and my immunoglobulin (IgG) count was high at 1,800 or so."
Her doctor prescribed an antibiotic, which she took twice daily. "I felt better and had another blood test which revealed the count was low."
Ruki, a client services staff member from Prodia Laboratorium on Jl. Kramat Jaya, Central Jakarta, said two IgG tests, as in Dr. Siti's case, are performed separately to determine if there is an infection.
If the count is high, a second test is performed two weeks later, and if the count has increased two to three times, then there is an infection. But if the count is lower in the second test, everything is fine, Ruki said.
Dr. Dan Carey, who answers pet owners' concerns for the Iams pet food company in the United States, said pregnant women without any antibodies could become infected with the parasite, and, possibly, infect their unborn babies. "But this is very uncommon," he asserted.
"All pregnant women should follow precautions when eating meat or cleaning the cat's litter box. It's not worth the risk," Dr. Carey said.
The risk is the infection could possibly result in eye and brain problems in the baby, Dr. Carey said.
Dr. Siti recommends women wear gloves when handling raw meat, the litter box or working in the garden, and to wash their hands immediately afterward.
Dr. Carey seconded this advice. "Since cats often defecate in outdoor soil, wear gloves when gardening and wash your hands and the vegetables afterward."
Veterinarians say it is wise to keep cats indoors to discourage them from hunting. Indoor cats fed a commercial diet are not at risk, Dr. Hall said.
"As a precaution, especially if you are worried about it, (women) ask your obstetrician to take a blood sample to see if you already have antibodies to toxoplasma," Dr. Carey advised.
In Jakarta, specific toxoplasmosis tests are available at any of the 15 Prodia Laboratoriums.
The labs offer two toxoplasma tests for immunoglobulin (IgG and IgM). The IgG test checks if a person has been exposed to the disease in the past, and the IgM checks if there is currently an active infection, Ruki explained, adding that the results were ready within a day.
Compared to wild animals sold illegally, such as the young wildcat, slow loris and other primates, dogs and domestic cats are far more suitable pets for humans because the chances of their transmitting a disease is low, Dr. Gunadi said. He warned that wild animals usually carried dangerous diseases and parasites which could be easily passed to humans.