Spank the Baby Doctor



Dr. T. Berry Brazelton

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, put’s a cap to a long and distinguished career. Talk about your Freudian slip. You see, in mid-January, a headline on one of Brazelton’s New York Times 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 is utterly irresponsible and simply not based on fact. Still, because Brazelton’s column is so 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 Brazleton’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 their first trimester, serious birth defects or even death of the unborn baby can result as the organism passes through the placenta, though 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 catching mice or cockroaches indoors. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the same is true for people; toxoplasmosis is most commonly transmitted by gardening or from kitchen counters.

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

If the cat is shedding the organism (one of those seven to 14 days), all you need to do is to scoop daily. You see, it takes at least a day and typically several days for the virus to become infectious to people. To insure absolute safety, scoop wearing gloves or with gloves on take the entire plastic liner with the litter inside and trash it (so feces is never handled). Or, here’s a concept, scooping the box can be the job for that guy who put you in the condition in the first place. Toxoplasmosis is transmitted through the cat’s feces; it’s not passed to people through the air.

To his credit, Brazelton at least partially explains that lots of women (some research suggests as many as thirty 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 there are immune against a recurrence of infection. 

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

In his column, Brazelton continues. He actually says this: “Some cats will seek out the infants’ mouths and noses and lie on them to smother them.”

I mentioned this absurd statement on the air, on my WGN Radio pet show, and we received no phone calls to confirm Brazelton’s claim. But Ally Huey of Chicago was among those who called with contrary stories. She told me that her cat, Rita, actually saved her friend’s baby from taking a nasty tumble. The baby was put down a sofa surrounded by pillows. Rita began to act agitated, and clearly wanted attention. The cat led Ally and her friend to the baby who had somehow re-arranged the protective pillows, and was about to roll off the sofa onto the floor.

In a time well before even the good baby doctor Brazelton was born, some thought cats actually do 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 Bazelton 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 am being hard on him, I make no apologies. He is 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 is lost is Brazelton’s credibility.

©Tribune Media Services, Steve Dale