Important Info for Pregnant Visitors

Toxoplasmosis and Lambing - How to avoid unnecessary risk

Anyone visiting a farm should pay particular attention to hygiene and handwashing in order to avoid possible contamination and potentially illness. Pregnant ladies should be especially careful - even more so when visiting us during lambing season. They should avoid contact with goats in kid (pregnant goats).

Our general advice for pregnant visitors is to avoid any contact with sheep and goats during your visit. You can always walk along the outside of the Animal House instead of through the middle if you prefer. You should wash your hands regularly throughout your visit (as always). If anyone in your group has contact with these animals, they should wash their hands thoroughly before contact with you. Please read on for more detailed information about this.

Toxoplasmosis is an infectious disease which can cause severe damage to an unborn child if a woman catches it for the first time when pregnant. It can cause abortion in sheep and goats who pick it up from parasites and it is important that anyone pregnant who comes into contact with these animals knows about this infection.

Toxoplasmosis may be caught by accidentally swallowing the organism when handling a lambing ewe, the afterbirth or newly born lamb. There is also the possibility of contracting toxoplasmosis from the contaminated hair or clothes of another person involved in lambing. During pregnancy sensible hygiene precautions can help to reduce the risk of Toxoplasmosis. Knowing how to avoid it will help reduce the anxiety that many woman may feel once they know this infection exists and is a risk.

Chlamydia and Q fever are two other infections which also present major health risk to a pregnant woman, and her unborn child. These infections may also be contracted from sheep, and lambing ewes in particular. For further information on Chlamydia and Q fever, contact your GP or local veterinary investigation centre.

How toxoplasmosis affects sheep

In order to contract toxoplasmosis, it is necessary to eat the infected organism. In sheep this happens when they eat feed or bedding material contaminated with infected cat faeces. The cat is the definitive host for the parasite – it lives and reproduces in the gut of any member of the cat family and is then shed in the droppings.

Although this usually only occurs for a short time in the cat's life, the organism remains capable of passing on the infection for up to 18 months in the right conditions. As the infection is usually caught from hunting rodents and birds, feral and farm cats are likely to be infected more often and for longer. Domestic cats should never be fed raw meat.

Sheep and goats who contract Toxoplasmosis in pregnancy risk passing the infection on to their lambs and kids. This may be a problem for the farmer as it can be a major cause of abortion in sheep. Infection in sheep in early pregnancy invariably results in fatal death, while infection later in pregnancy typically could cause a live infected lamb to be born alongside a dead twin. Non pregnant sheep which become infected develop a life long immunity and are not at risk of aborting lambs.

The Toxoplasma infection remains in the muscles in the form of tissue cysts in a sheep which has previously been infected, and the meat from these animals is then a risk to humans if eaten uncooked. A live vaccine, Toxovax, has recently been developed for sheep. Neither the vaccine nor a recently vaccinated sheep should be handled by pregnant women.