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Pregnant women are especially at risk for a zoonotic disease called toxoplasmosis, which is caused by a cat parasite, Toxoplasma gondii. This parasite can infect people if they accidentally consume either undercooked meat from infected animals or contaminated cat feces. If a pregnant woman is infected, there’s a risk to her unborn baby.
Pregnant women or those who may become pregnant should wear gloves when handling cat feces or avoid them entirely — what a great excuse to delegate that daily litterbox cleaning — and always wear gloves when gardening or working outdoors to avoid accidental exposure to cat feces. It’s also important for pregnant women to eat meat that is fully cooked and fruits and vegetables that are thoroughly washed. But unless your cat hunts and eats prey, it’s unlikely that its feces will harbor the parasite. And if a cat is exposed, it will usually only be potentially infectious to people for a short period of time. Pregnant women can safely own cats — they should simply take precautions.
Millions of Americans are infected with a zoonotic disease every year, and treating their illnesses costs billions of dollars. Infected and exposed people may require direct medical care or ongoing treatment for what can become a chronic illness, such as Lyme disease. There is an extreme variation in the prevalence and severity of zoonotic diseases. Some are relatively rare; others are more common. Some can be fatal, while others are simple, treatable skin infections.
Even in the face of these frightening facts, there are fairly simple ways to increase your odds of staving off zoonotic diseases. The best way is to use parasite control for your dogs and cats. All pets (even indoor cats) should be on year-round monthly parasite-control programs. When our pets are healthy, they don’t pose a health risk to us. Problems usually arise only when a pet’s care is disrupted or parasite-control regimens are ignored.
Veterinary wellness exams every six months to a year are imperative. Your veterinarian will examine your pet and discuss which parasite preventives are right for your pet. The doctor also may recommend additional treatments — such as deworming — based on your pet’s age, lifestyle and health status.
And remember simple prevention measures like daily disposal of pet feces and thorough hand washing. With a little knowledge and effort, you can reduce your family’s risk of and exposure to zoonotic diseases — and enjoy a long, healthy relationship with your pet.
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