A lot of people had probably never heard of Chris Pratt until the recent “Cat-gate,” as one celebrity news website called it.
Pratt plays doofus Andy Dwyer in the sitcom “Parks and Recreation.” But many animal-lovers now think Pratt’s the doofus for giving away Bella, his incontinent 19-year-old cat.
It probably didn’t help that he broadcast his intentions to 56,000 followers on Twitter. Apparently stunned at the outcry, Pratt blogged “my wife (actress Anna Faris) and I want to start a family and we ABSOLUTELY CANNOT have an animal that sh*ts all over the house.”
Pratt and Faris are far from the only couple to ditch a cat or dog because of concerns over how it would fit in with pregnancy and a baby.
Stephanie Williams, a veterinary technician at the Animal Rescue League of Western Pennsylvania in Pittsburgh, sighs when asked how often she sees it happen. “Probably at least once a day. We try to talk people out of it, but usually they’re pretty set on what they want.”
One common misconception is that it’s dangerous for pregnant women to live in the same house as a cat, which may have contributed to Pratt and Faris's decision to send Bella packing.
It’s true that cats are the only animals that can transmit the rare parasitic disease toxoplasmosis through their feces. Toxoplasmosis usually doesn’t make cats or healthy humans sick, but infection in a pregnant woman can cause a miscarriage or birth defects.
The thing is, you’re more likely to contract toxoplasmosis from eating undercooked meat or unwashed fruits or vegetables than you are from changing your cat’s litterbox, especially if your cat never goes outside.
“To get toxoplasmosis from your cat requires a lot of things to happen,” explains internist Jeff Kravetz, an associate professor at Yale and self-described cat lover who’s had two since before his wife delivered their two children. “It has to eat a mouse or something else that’s living outdoors and actually has toxoplasmosis. If you have an indoor cat, there’s almost no risk at all, unless you have a mouse running around your house.”
Plus, toxoplasmosis isn’t a chronic or recurring infection. If your cat happens to contract it, which usually occurs in the first year of life, not the 19th, it will excrete the parasite’s eggs in its feces for only a week Kravetz notes. After that, it’s immune for the rest of its life.
In other words, the chance that Faris might have caught toxoplasmosis from Bella was vanishingly small.
Several years ago, the Humane Society of the United States mailed out toxoplasmosis information packets to every member of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. The packet included a brief survey, which 1,500 doctors answered and returned, says Nancy Peterson, cat programs manager at the Humane Society.
Of the 1,500, Peterson says, 42 said they would advise pregnant cat-owners to get rid of their cat or at least put it outside. While 42 might seem like a pretty small minority of ob-gyns, Peterson says, you have to figure that their patients are spreading the words to their friends. “That’s how this myth just goes on and on and on.”
(For more information about pets and pregnancy and babies, check out the Humane Society’s website at humansociety.org)
Rita Rubin, a contributing writer for msnbc.com and today.com, previously covered medicine for USA Today and U.S. News & World Report. She lives in suburban Washington, D.C., with her husband and two daughters.