Cat-induced miscarriages in women

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Up to 5 percent miscarriages in pregnant women are due to infected pet cats

By Prof Dr. Abdullah G Arijo

Animal domestication dates back to recorded history. Animals fall mostly in three categories viz. wild, domesticated and pet animals and play a vital role in diversified means. Pet animals, however, enjoy more benefits as they are considered a family member.

The first animal that Humans domesticated was Dog.  Other pets came later. Sheep and goats have first domesticated roughly 11,000 years ago, while cats became pets around 7000 B.C. with the advent of agriculture. (As people collected and stored grain, it would attract mice, which would then attract cats.). Dogs were originally domesticated to assist people in hunting. There are hundreds of domestic dog species today, but most are pets.

In orthodox religious societies dogs and cats are seen as companion animal everywhere. A handsome amount of hard earning is spent on these pet animals. Most people in the west spend huge amounts to adopt a dog or cat, get supplies, and cover initial medical costs. Those costs vary based on the size of your pet, brands you prefer, and how much your pet is healthy. Despite a huge amount required to have a cat as a pet, what are benefits associated with cats as pets?

Why an animal has become a pet is a question? There are proven health benefits linked with a cat owner including lowering the risk of heart disease. Their purring helps to heal bones, tendons and muscles. The owner sleeps better and they reduce stress and anxiety etc.

But there are some dangerous risks associated with human health, particularly for a pregnant woman. Pregnancy and toxoplasmosis go hand in hand. The myth about cats giving pregnant women toxoplasmosis has been causing misery for a long time. Pregnant women can transmit toxoplasmosis, a rare parasitic disease, to their unborn babies, and a toxoplasmosis infection can lead to miscarriage or cause malformed babies.

Toxoplasmosis is a parasitic disease caused by ‘Toxoplasma gondii’. The infection is usually spread by eating poorly cooked food that contains cysts, exposure to infected cat faeces, and from an infected mother to her baby during pregnancy. Rarely, the disease may be spread by blood transfusion.

The cats become infected by eating infected rodents, birds, or other small animals. The parasite is then passed in the cat’s faeces. Kittens and cats can shed millions of parasites in their faeces for as long as 3 weeks after infection. Mature cats are less likely to shed Toxoplasma if they have been previously infected.

Toxoplasmosis doesn’t usually cause any symptoms and most people don’t realize they have had it. However, some people get flu-like symptoms, such as high temperature (fever), aching muscles, tiredness, feeling sick, sore throat, swollen glands etc. If you do have symptoms, they normally get better on their own within about 6 weeks.

An infected woman may be at more at risk if she gets infected in pregnancy. Toxoplasmosis can cause miscarriage and if it spreads to her baby it can cause serious complications, especially if she catches it early in pregnancy. Woman’s immune system also becomes weak. For example, if she has a Human Immune Virus (HIV) or she is having chemotherapy, the infection may affect her eyes or brain.

Rural women in Pakistan are totally unaware of this infection they carry from cats. Urban woman on the other side have frequent excess to medical General Practitioner, hence the chance of infection diagnosis is in exercise.

It is always better to adopt preventive measures to prevent toxoplasmosis. If a woman is pregnant or has a weak immune system, she must wear gloves while gardening, wash hands before preparing food and eating, wash hands, knives and chopping boards thoroughly after preparing raw meat, wash fruit and vegetables thoroughly to get rid of any traces of soil, wear gloves while emptying cat litter trays and empty them every day. She must not eat raw or undercooked meat, must not drink unpasteurized goats’ milk or any products made from it, and also must not touch or handle pregnant sheep or lambs, as they may be a source of infection.

How common is toxoplasmosis is a question yet to get a proper answer? Fortunately, the number of pregnant women who contract toxoplasmosis is relatively small; only one in 10,000 babies are born with severe congenital toxoplasmosis, however, published data in Pakistan is scanty and cannot be used to conclude.

Our health authorities must emphasize on health education especially on the Toxoplasma transmission routes in the childhood, and performance of screening program using regular serologic tests during pregnancy could help physicians in the diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of toxoplasmosis and reduction of the economic burden of the disease on society.

(The writer is Chairman, Department of Veterinary Parasitology, Sindh Agriculture University, Tandojam)

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