We all know the conventional dos and don’ts (mostly the don’ts, let’s be honest here) for everyday activities while pregnant – don’t drink a lot of alcohol, don’t smoke, don’t ride roller coasters, don’t inhale paint fumes. But what about the nuances of some of the lesser-known, and maybe lesser researched activities? Gardening can be beneficial for many people’s health – it gets people outside and moving, it is relaxing, it can calm a person’s mental state. But what are some of the impacts an everyday activity, like gardening, can have on a person’s pregnancy?
So, is it safe to garden while pregnant? Yes, but there are some risks. As with any activity that involves being outside and in the dirt can run the risk of exposure to toxoplasmosis, a parasite often found within cat feces. Gardens can be prime locations for neighborhood cats to use as litter boxes, so it is always important to exercise caution when gardening while pregnant.
Nervous future parents may interpret the possible presence of cat feces and risk of toxoplasmosis as a reason to stay out of the garden entirely while going through pregnancy – but nine months is a long time to go without gardening, especially if you happen to be pregnant during prime gardening seasons! There are ways to mitigate the risk of exposure to cat feces containing toxoplasmosis, so moms to be will not need to hang up their gardening gloves for the duration of their future child’s gestation. Read on to learn more about safe ways to the garden while going through pregnancy.
How do You Become Infected with Toxoplasmosis While Pregnant?
Before we get into the details of exposure to toxoplasmosis while gardening, and some of the best ways to mitigate that exposure or simply avoid it completely, it may be most helpful to ensure our readers have a full understanding of what toxoplasmosis is and how pregnant women can become infected with it. At its most basic level, toxoplasmosis is a parasite. The word “toxoplasmosis” actually does not refer to the parasite itself, but rather to the disease that occurs as a result of infection with the parasite, also known as Toxoplasma gondii. However, since the colloquial catch-all term for the whole situation involving this parasite is toxoplasmosis, that is how we will be referring to all of it in this article.
Toxoplasmosis and Cats
The toxoplasmosis parasite infects a wide range of different kinds of animal hosts, but, oddly enough, cats are the only animal that shed the parasite directly into their feces. This process does not just happen with common house cats, either – all members of the cat family, including big cats such as cougars and bobcats, can pass on a toxoplasmosis infection. As if you needed another reason to avoid mountain lion poop while out hiking.
But of course, humans are most often exposed to toxoplasmosis not through cougar scat, but through a much less exciting situation: the common house cat, since that is an animal with whom many of us have chosen to form a relationship. Obviously, humans do not willingly ingest cat feces (unlike many of our dogs). But we do encounter it in other ways, one of which can be through gardening. Gardening can stir up dirt and dust that may not even contain visible traces of cat feces. But if a cat with toxoplasmosis has pooped in your garden, even if the poop has broken down to the point of no longer being physically noticeable, there are still traces of the toxoplasmosis parasite in your soil. Of course, you are (likely) not going to be trying to eat your soil, either. But accidental ingestion of soil can occur in a number of unintentional ways while gardening – for example, if you have a fresh scratch on your hand that you get dirty, if you have soil under your fingernails and then eat a meal if you brush your mouth or face while gardening. All of these are situations that could result in a pregnant gardener being exposed to toxoplasmosis.
Toxoplasmosis and Humans
For humans who are not going through pregnancy, a toxoplasmosis infection is typically not that big of a deal. If your immune system is on the weaker side and you are exposed to toxoplasmosis, you may experience mild symptoms similar to those of the flu, those much less severe – usually some low key aches and pains and possibly some lymph node swelling. For many people, they may not even realize they have ever become exposed to the parasite at all. Some health experts estimate that, given the prevalence of the parasite and the popularity of the house cats who inadvertently spread it, roughly half of the current human population has toxoplasmosis.
Toxoplasmosis may not be a big deal to most people, but if you are pregnant, it is a huge risk to your unborn child. Babies exposed to toxoplasmosis in the womb have an increased risk of death due to miscarriage or even stillbirth. Babies who become infected with toxoplasmosis and survive to full term are more likely to experience birth defects, particularly those relating to the brain and the eyes. For the majority of adults, toxoplasmosis is mostly a non-issue and a minor nuisance at the absolute worst, but for babies, it can be devastating. That is why it is so important to take proper precautions while experiencing pregnancy.
How do You Avoid a Toxoplasmosis Infection While Pregnant?
All right, we have probably sufficiently spooked you enough regarding the dangers of toxoplasmosis. Yes, toxoplasmosis can be a serious problem for unborn fetuses, but gardening while pregnant is certainly not a death sentence for your baby. There are a series of simple precautions pregnant gardeners can take to minimize the risk of toxoplasmosis and ensure their babies are completely safe.
Most gardeners already know that the safest and most hygienic way to garden is to use a pair of gardening gloves when handling plants and soil. If you are one of those gardeners that really enjoys the feeling of getting your hands dirty, we have some not so great news for you – you will probably have to give that aspect of gardening up for the duration of your pregnancy in order to protect your baby. But wearing gardening gloves is a small price to pay, a minor inconvenience that dramatically reduces you and your unborn child’s risk of being exposed to toxoplasmosis.
Beyond wearing gloves, tenets of basic hygiene are the best ways to effectively prevent toxoplasmosis while gardening. Even if you are transitioning to wearing gloves, you should still wash your hands thoroughly whenever you come back into the house after a gardening spell. And we do not mean just briefly running your hands under the faucet – we are talking a full-on scrub like they taught you in kindergarten, using warm water, working the soap in between your fingers, and taking enough time to sing the ABC’s in your head before you rinse off. And it is also good practice to avoid touching your face, especially around your mouth area, if you are gardening while pregnant. This may mean that, if you are gardening in the full heat of summer and you tend to use your hands to wipe the sweat off your face, you should keep a small towel or cloth looped through your belt that you can use for that purpose instead.
If you do become concerned that you have been exposed to toxoplasmosis when gardening over the course of your pregnancy, you can determine your infection status through a simple blood test. And do not stress too much if the test comes back positive – catching a toxoplasmosis diagnosis early will provide you with a lot of options for preventing transmission to your baby or treating the effects of the transmission if it has already happened. Again, a toxoplasmosis diagnosis is not a death sentence, but it is important to be caught earlier rather than later. If you are an avid gardener and plan to continue gardening throughout pregnancy, you should talk to your doctor about the necessity of toxoplasmosis tests.
Is it Safe to Have Cats as Pets if You are Pregnant, or Planning to Become Pregnant?
With all this conversation around toxoplasmosis and cats, you may be freaking out a bit if you are a cat owner who is planning on having children one day. If gardeners can be exposed to cat feces and potentially become infected with toxoplasmosis without even actually owning a cat, what is a cat owner to do to protect themselves?
It is important to remember that you cannot become exposed to the toxoplasmosis parasite through physical contact with your actual cat – just through physical contact with your cat’s feces. And the solution to avoiding your cat’s feces is probably one you will be more than happy to implement, though your partner may be a little cranky about it. That’s right: pregnant ladies should no longer be on litter box duty. Your partner is going to have to step up during those nine months, because the best way to avoid toxoplasmosis infection is to just avoid cat poop entirely.
If you do not have a partner, or if your partner has work travel or another situation that results in them being gone for extended periods of time when avoiding the litter box becomes unviable, never fear. You definitely still do not have to get rid of Garfield. If you know you are going to need to be the one to scoop your cat’s litter, start scooping it once a day, since it takes at least a full day and usually longer for the toxoplasmosis parasite to become infectious once a cat passes it into their feces. And many of the same precautions mentioned above apply when dealing with cat litter – wear gloves, avoid touching your face, and thoroughly scrub your hands afterwards.
Can You Pull Weeds While Pregnant?
While we are on the topic of safe activities surrounding gardening while pregnant, you may be wondering if there are some dangers associated with pregnancy and gardening that are not associated with the risk of toxoplasmosis. Gardening is, after all, a physical activity, and physical activities can become more and more strenuous and taxing as a pregnancy progresses. One particularly physical aspect of gardening is pulling weeds.
First and foremost, we should state the conventional wisdom that if you did not engage in a certain activity before you were pregnant, you should not take it up during your pregnancy. Pregnancy is not exactly the ideal time to sign up to run a marathon if you’ve never been much of a jogger, and the same is true for gardening: you should not decide suddenly that your child’s gestation absolutely must coincide with that vegetable garden you have always been meaning to get going. If you are not already used to spending time in the garden, which can be an intense physical exertion, pregnancy is not the wisest time to start.
But if you are an avid gardener used to the physical exertion of pregnancy, there is no reason why pulling weeds will cause any sort of harm to you or your baby. Just keep in mind that pulling weeds can stir up the soil, so you should take the same precautions as mentioned above when handling soil that could potentially be exposed to toxoplasmosis. Also, listen to your body. If your belly is becoming too cumbersome to pull weeds and it is becoming more of a frustration than a relaxant, it is okay to take a step back from that aspect of your gardening routine. Trust us, the weeds will still be there when you are ready to get back out into the garden – this time to introduce Junior and begin to foster a lifelong love of gardening in your child.