Could dogs be dangerous to pregnant women and unborn babies?

For a long time, we’ve known that cats (specifically, their feces) can carry toxoplasmosis. That can infect pregnant women and their fetus and could affect the eyes or the brain of the baby. Pregnant women are told to have someone else in the house deal with the kitty litter; pregnant women everywhere are happy to heed this advice.

But what about dogs, birds and farm animals? Would the same caution about pregnant women avoiding feces be true?

Recently, there have been a few cases of pregnant women or children contacting a disease from dogs — specifically pregnant dogs or newborn puppies. You see, pregnant dogs, or dogs in heat, can carry a disease called brucellosis. They also can pass it onto their puppies through the birth canal. Humans tend to get it by handling newborn puppies or helping in the delivery of the puppies.

Dr. Sina Haeri, director of perinatal research and co-director of maternal fetal medicine at St. David’s Women’s Center of Texas, says brucellosis can cause people to have a fever, joint weakness and fatigue. Pregnant women could miscarry if they are in the first trimester. Later on, they have a higher risk of preterm labor and stillbirth. Doctors will want to monitor the mother’s cervix closely for signs of preterm labor as well as monitor the fetus throughout the pregnancy. We don’t have enough data about birth defects from brucellosis, Haeri says.

Contacting brucellosis from dogs, though, is rare. In Haeri’s career here (he also works in the Marble Falls and Fredericksburg area) and in rural North Carolina, he has seen seven cases. None of them were contracted from dogs. Instead, they happened after a pregnant woman helped a sheep, goat or cow deliver their babies. His most recent case was caused by a goat biting her pregnant human helper during labor. (See — goats don’t handle labor well, either.)

Most farm animals, however, can be vaccinated against brucellosis. Women also should avoid performing those animal birthing and breeding activities during pregnancy. And though the disease is rare in dogs, pregnant women also should not handle dogs giving birth or their newborn puppies.

Brucellosis is not something that doctors will screen for. If you are pregnant and have been exposed to birthing farm animals or dogs, let your doctor know about that if you have unusual fever or joint pain. The treatment would be a six-week course of two antibiotics.

Toxoplasmosis from cats is much more of a concern. Haeri calls it “the bane of my existence” and the No. 1 reason why women get referred to him by their obstetricians. The screening for toxoplasmosis comes with a lot of false positives. If you have a negative reading, you can be sure it is negative. If you have a positive one, don’t panic, and don’t make any drastic decisions — you and your baby might not have it. See a specialist for further screening.

Haeri encourages women to exercise good caution. Most indoor-only cats are probably fine; outdoor cats are typically the carriers of toxoplasmosis. If you cannot get someone else to clean the kitty litter, wear a mask and gloves, and wash your hands afterwards.

He also encourages pregnant women to avoid bird droppings because of parrot fever, aka psittacosis. It gives women flulike symptoms.

A good rule— no matter what the pet — is to practice good hygiene and have someone else deal with the droppings during pregnancy. Haeri also says why not throw in the dishes and cleaning the house, too?

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