Pregnancy, Babies, and Cats: Myths and Facts

Pregnancy Babies Cats

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The last thing you want from reading The Pulse is more things to worry about during pregnancy and childbirth. So here is some good news: You can stop worrying about the cat.

Myth: Cats Smother Babies

When my children were babies, my grandmother would tell me to keep the cat out of the baby’s bedroom. She believed that the cat might jump up into the crib and steal the baby’s breath. She grew up in the Carpathian Mountains, the land of Dracula and werewolves. But the myth of baby-smothering cats has survived.

This myth dates back about 300 years to when cats were associated with witches. In the 1700s, cats were sometimes blamed for smothering babies in their sleep. Of course, there is no truth to this myth. Those sudden deaths were probably due to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). SIDS or crib death.

Myth: Cats Increase the Risk of Mental Illness

This myth is more modern and based on some fact. It is known that the parasite Toxoplasma Gondii can cause an infection that may lead to brain damage. Cats can spread this infection – toxoplasmosis – through their feces. Cats may become infected from eating infected birds or mice. An infected pregnant woman can pass the infection to her baby, which can increase a baby’s risk for eye or brain damage. That much is fact.

A few studies over the years have linked cat ownership during pregnancy and infancy to an increased risk for schizophrenia for children in later years. The suspicion was that children or babies were exposed to an undiagnosed toxoplasmosis infection. These studies were small and not well conducted, but the myth is out there and you may have heard about it.

A new and large study done by University College of London has put this myth to rest. The study was published in the journal Psychological Medicine. The researchers followed about 5,000 children who were born to families with cats. These children were followed through age 18. The researchers found no evidence of any increased risk for mental any health problems. Schizophrenia can usually be diagnosed in teenage years.

Fact: You Do Need to Avoid Cat Litter

Toxoplasmosis is dangerous to your baby if you become infected at 10 to 24 weeks of pregnancy. Your child will have about a 5 to 6 percent risk of brain or eye problems. The good news is that doctors routinely test for this infection and it can be treated with antibiotics. Symptoms can include fever, fatigue, and swollen glands. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says cats are safe during pregnancy as long as you take these precautions:

  • Don’t change the kitty litter. Let someone else (your mate) do this.
  • If you have to change the litter box, wear gloves and wash your hands when you are done.
  • Do not let your cat outdoors.
  • Change kitty litter every day. It takes more than one day for parasite eggs in cat feces to become infectious.

Fact: Your Cat May Decrease Your Child’s Risk for Allergies and Asthma

According to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology, recent research shows that having a pet – dog or cat – may reduce your child’s risk for developing asthma and allergies. Exposure to a cat, dog, or farm animals may teach your child’s immune system to tolerate allergies that trigger allergy symptoms and wheezing.

A recent study published in the journal Clinical & Experimental Allergy found that children exposed to cats during the first year of life reduced their risk of future cat allergy by close to 50 percent.

Bottom Line

You don’t need to throw fluffy out of the house when you get pregnant. Talk to your doctor about toxoplasmosis screening and prevention. Talk to your doctor about prevention strategies for SIDS. Keep the cat indoors.

Christopher Iliades
Dr. Chris Iliades is a medical doctor with 20 years of experience in clinical medicine and clinical research. Chris has been a full time medical writer and journalist since 2004. His byline appears in over 1,000 articles online including EverydayHealth, The Clinical Advisor, and Healthgrades. He has also written for print media including Cruising World Magazine, MD News, and The Johns Hopkins Children's Center Magazine. Chris lives with his wife and close to his three children and four grandchildren in the Boston area.

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