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Commentary: Baby doctor irresponsibly perpetuates harmful myths about cats

He may be the most famed pediatrician since Dr. Spock, but perhaps it's time Dr. T. Berry Brazelton puts a cat — oops, meant to write, puts a cap! — on his long and distinguished career. You see, in mid January, a headline on one of Brazelton's syndicated columns read, "Keep Cats Away for Baby's Safety."

Brazelton came right out and said the reader's pregnant daughter should "rid herself" of her three cats. His advice was utterly irresponsible and simply not based on fact. Still, because Brazelton's column is widely read and the credentials of this presumed wise elder of pediatrics are indisputable, readers pay attention. As a result, it's my fear that Brazelton's flawed recommendation has been responsible for the needless death of many cats. It's time to spank the baby doctor!

Brazelton's concerns for pregnant women living with cats begins with a parasite called toxoplasma gondii. It's true that if infected in the first trimester, serious birth defects or even the death of an unborn baby can result as the organism passes through the placenta, although the disease poses no danger when experienced later in pregnancy. (Toxoplasmosis is also a threat to adults who are immune-compromised.)

Cats pick up toxo outdoors, or on kitchen counters where there's uncooked meat, even by catching mice or cockroaches indoors. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the same is true for people; toxoplasmosis is most commonly transmitted by gardening or from kitchen counters.

A specific series of events must occur for anyone to contract toxo from a kitty. First, the cat must be infected in the first place, and most are not infected with the organism (according to one researcher, about 75 percent or more are clear). Cats can pass on the disease only seven to 14 days their entire lives (when there's an acute infection and the organism is in what's called the oocyst stage). Brazelton didn't point out any of this in his column.

If a cat is shedding the organism (one of those seven to 14 days), all you need to do is to scoop the pet's litter box daily. You see, it takes at least a day, and typically several days, for the virus to become infectious to people. To ensure absolute safety, scoop wearing gloves or, with gloves on, take the entire plastic liner with the litter and trash it (so feces is never handled). Or, here's a concept, leave the scooping to the dad-to-be. Toxoplasmosis is transmitted through a cat's feces; it's not passed to people through the air.

To his credit, Brazelton at least partly explained that lots of women (some research suggests as many as 30 percent) have previously been exposed to toxoplasmosis and they never know it (because among healthy people, toxo often has few symptoms). A simple blood test determines previous exposure. This is handy knowledge because generally, once positive for toxo, most people remain positive for life and are immune to a recurrence of infection.

Unlike Dr. Brazelton's brazen statement encouraging pregnant women to give up their cats, neither the American Veterinary Medical Association nor American Medical Association concur.

In his column, Brazelton continues, "Some cats will seek out the infants' mouths and noses and lie on them to smother them."

In a time well before even the good baby doctor Brazelton was born, some thought cats actually did smother babies. Today, we know better — or most people do. Cats are curious, and they do like to lap any milk available, even if it's on an infant's mouth.

While it's prudent to never allow any pet — dog, cat, parrot or even hamster — alone with an infant, suffocating babies is not something pet cats do.

I can't speak for why Brazelton is perpetuating ancient myths and misinformation about cats. Perhaps he just doesn't like cats. Or maybe he's just an old coot entrenched in ancient beliefs. If it sounds as if I'm being hard on him, I make no apologies. He's supposed to be an expert, and as a consequence of his column, I strongly suspect felines' lives were unnecessarily lost. To me, as a result what's lost is Brazelton's credibility.

Steve Dale is writes a syndicated column, "My Pets World."

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Commentary: Baby doctor irresponsibly perpetuates harmful myths about cats 02/09/09 [Last modified: Monday, February 9, 2009 3:51pm]
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