The ‘cats versus dogs’ debate is about as old as the pets themselves – but science may have settled the score for expectant mums who are also choosing a fur baby.
A new study has found that owning a cat while pregnant increases the risk of the mother experiencing postpartum depression.
However, dogs were found to reduce that risk, as well as for other mental health problems like anxiety and psychological distress after childbirth.
Pregnant cat owners are also at risk of the parasite toxoplasmosis, which causes an infectious disease that can result in miscarriage, infant anomaly or brain disorder.
Lead author Kenta Matsumura said: ‘We discovered that the type of pet owned can impact a mother’s mental health, both in the perinatal and postpartum periods.
‘Our findings suggest special attention must be paid to cat owners, who have a higher risk of developing mental health complications as well as toxoplasmosis.’
The results of a study from the University of Toyama found that cat ownership was associated with increased risk of depressive symptoms at 6 months postpartum (stock image)
One in four mothers-to-be have mental health issues BEFORE birth, study claims
Awareness is growing about post-natal depression – but few people know problems can happen before the baby is born.
Researchers at King’s College London diagnosed mental health problems among 27 per cent of pregnant women.
Using a psychological screening technique at midwife appointments, they found 11 per cent of women had depression, 15 per cent had anxiety, 2 per cent had eating disorders and 2 per cent obsessive-compulsive disorders, with many women having combinations of different problems.
These are usually missed because people wrongly believe women always suffer a feel-good ‘glow’ when they become pregnant.
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Previous studies have looked into the relationship between pet ownership and mental health of different demographics.
However, not many targeted women around childbirth, when they have heightened vulnerability to mental health disorders.
Matsumura’s team designed a questionnaire to probe how pet ownership affects the mental health of pregnant women.
Information was collected on topics including demographic and socioeconomic status, medical and obstetric history, physical and mental health and lifestyle.
The questionnaire was taken by 80,814 mothers in both urban and rural areas of Japan, who owned either dogs or cats during their pregnancy.
They each took it on five occasions – in the first trimester, in the second or third trimester, and at one month, six months, and one year postpartum.
The findings, published this month in Social Science & Medicine, revealed that owning a dog during pregnancy was associated with reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety at one month and six months postpartum.
New mothers with dogs also showed signs of reduced psychological distress at 12 months postpartum.
In contrast, cat ownership was associated with increased risk of depressive symptoms at six months postpartum.
Symptoms of psychological distress in the second or third trimester of pregnancy were also noted for both pregnant cat owners and pregnant dog owners.
However this was largely similar to a reference group of mothers without pets.
Owning a dog during pregnancy was associated with reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety at 1 month and 6 months postpartum. New mothers with dogs also showed signs of reduced psychological distress at 12 months postpartum (stock image)
WHAT IS TOXOPLASMA GONDII?
Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii) is a parasitic protozoan that causes toxoplasmosis.
It infects species of warm-blooded animals, including humans. Transmission routes include contact with cat feces, contaminated food or water, or sex with an infected person.
It can persist for long periods of time in the bodies of humans (and other animals), possibly even for a lifetime.
Of those who are infected however, very few have symptoms because a healthy person’s immune system usually keeps the parasite from causing illness.
However, pregnant women and individuals who have compromised immune systems should be cautious; for them, a Toxoplasma infection could cause serious health problems.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
The study’s authors conclude that the type of pet owned during pregnancy does play a role in the mothers’ mental health before and after childbirth.
They also suggest that dogs’ longer history of domestication could be why they have a beneficial effect on mood.
‘Dogs and humans might have coevolved to yield benefits in both species, including human mental health,’ they wrote.
‘The exact mechanism underlying the second finding of increased risk of mental health problems with cat ownership is unknown.
‘While some researchers have shown that human–cat attachment is as high as human–dog attachment, others have shown that cat owners’ self-esteem is lower than that of dog owners.
‘In contrast to dogs, cats have a shorter history of living with humans.
‘Thus, the coevolution degree is not yet mature enough to produce wide-ranging benefits in humans.’
The study did not take into consideration the number of pets owned by the pregnant women, how burdensome taking care of them was and whether they would like to have pets.
As it is impossible to control all variables, the authors claim they are unable to provide a definitive cause for their results.
They concluded: ‘The observed relationships do not necessarily mean that acquiring a dog will prevent mothers from developing postpartum depression or psychological distress.
‘For example, we cannot rule out the possibility that expectant mothers with poor mental health tend not to have dogs but tend to have cats.’