Pregnancy and pets: what vet moms say

Pregnancy and pets are not mutually exclusive, despite some scare stories. If our vets are prepared to have babies while living in homes filled with pets, you can be assured the dangers are minimal.

Here’s what our vet moms, Dr Susan van Niekerk of EberVet Pet Clinic and Dr Ingrid de Wet of Country Animal Clinic have to say:

Women who are pregnant or are intending to fall pregnant should be aware of a few safety concerns when combining babies and pets, but also know that there are more positive aspects than negative ones.

Possible dangers

The chief concern surrounding pregnancy and cats is the disease toxoplasmosis. It is caused by a parasite and healthy, adult cats may carry it without showing any symptoms. The parasite can be passed on to people and if infected for the first time while pregnant, a woman could either miscarry or give birth to a child with birth defects.

If a woman has already been infected by the parasite in the past, being exposed to it again during pregnancy will not be a problem. Women can get tested for exposure at the beginning of their pregnancy to know how concerned they need to be.

You can also contract toxoplasmosis from undercooked meat and from gardening with faecal-contaminated soil.

How to avoid toxoplasmosis

Even with a negative test result, there’s no need to avoid cats. All pregnant women need to do is take some simple precautions to reduce the chances of exposure and infection.

The parasite is transmitted through faeces so as long as the pregnant woman avoids contact with the cat’s litter tray the risk is low. Get someone else to change the litter while you are pregnant.

Make sure the litter box is scooped after every use. Toxoplasma parasites do not become infectious until at least 24 hours after they are shed in the cat’s faeces. By scooping the litter box after each use, or at least once a day, you can decrease the chances of the Toxoplasma gondii parasite becoming transmittable.

When gardening, always use gloves, and make sure you eat your meat well done. Avoid giving your cat raw food as this will decrease the likelihood of him/her picking up the parasite, thus minimising the risk to you. If you can, keep your cat indoors as cats have to eat infected prey to become carriers of the disease.

While I was pregnant I was dealing with a colony of breeding cats that was struggling with toxoplasmosis, says Dr Ingrid. I followed basic hygiene principles and no problems were experienced.

Potential signs of toxoplasmosis in cats include eye abnormalities, diarrhoea, fever, difficulty breathing, jaundice and neurologic abnormalities.

Worms

Treat your pets for both internal and external parasites on a regular basis as fleas can carry worms. But before you deworm the whole family, including yourself, make sure that any dewormer you take is safe for your unborn baby as some can cause foetal abnormalities, especially in the 1st trimester.

The same goes for some older generation tick and flea control products as some of their ingredients should not be handled by pregnant women. Ask your doctor to prescribe a safe dewormer for you; your vet or EberVet Vetshop can help with a dewormer for your pets.

Falls and injuries during pregnancy

Dogs like to show their affection for their owners by jumping up. Obviously, you need to avoid this happening when you are pregnant as a heavy dog might cause you to fall. This can be avoided by training your dog not to jump, long before you are pregnant. Puppy training is recommended, in any case, for all dogs and for a host of reasons. A well-trained dog is a joy on so many levels.

If you are scratched or bitten by a pet, run cold water over the wound and clean with disinfectant. Ask your doctor for advice if the wound is more than a surface wound.

The benefits of having pets during pregnancy 

  • Studies have shown that women with dogs are 50 percent more likely to stay active until late in pregnancy which improves both maternal and foetal health.
  • Pets don’t judge so they don’t care if your ankles are swollen, your back hurts or you’re eating a second piece of cake because someone called you fat. During pregnancy you need all the emotional support you can get, and pets are a great source of support giving love unconditionally.
  • Often dogs become more protective of their pregnant owner and will come between her and any perceived danger.
  • There is evidence that dogs can sense your pregnancy before even you know. A sudden change in your dog ‘s behaviour might encourage you to do that pregnancy test earlier and thus decrease the risk of you drinking alcohol or unsafe medication in the early days of pregnancy.
  • Pet ownership also prepares you physically you for having a baby. If you have to get up early to let the dog out, remember baby will wake you far more frequently. When I was about four months pregnant, says Dr Ingrid, we lost our Jack Russell, Mia. Our remaining dog took it badly and we had to get a new pup, Alvin, to keep him company. It was quite rough training a new pup. He woke up at 4am for weeks, but that proved good training for a newborn human!
  • Cleaning up after the dog’s pooped on the lawn will seem a lot less odious when your baby has a nappy blowout!
  • Owning pets makes you more aware of household dangers so you’re more likely to make your home child safe before he or she arrives, ie: removing dangling power cords, covering the swimming pool, keeping doors and gates closed etc.
  • Owning pets also decreases stress hormones like cortisol; that’s a definite plus when you’re pregnant and your hormones are all over the place!
  • One of the greatest benefits is being able to raise a child with pets. Having to care for other creatures and respect them teaches them selflessness and empathy. I often find our daughter talking to them, reassuring them, hugging them and sharing her food,’ Dr Ingrid says.  In turn our newest dog, Dawie, is her constant companion and sleeps on her bed at every nap and at bedtime.

Preparing your pets for a new baby

Play crying sounds and allow them to investigate the nursery. We also brought baby clothes home from the hospital, so they could get used to the smells of the new baby, says Dr Ingrid. Both dogs adjusted very well and although we are always careful and supervise interactions they seem to understand that our daughter Ellie is also a person and are gentle with her.

It’s a great privilege to be able to raise a child that loves and cares for animals.