There are a number of hazards to pregnant women that are unique to veterinary medicine along with some that are common to everyone in workplaces. Awareness of the risks will help you stay safe during your pregnancy. Each woman is an individual, so risk tolerance for each will vary, and each pregnancy will be different. Good information will go a long way toward having a safer experience as a pregnant veterinarian.
Trauma is a risk for all ambulatory equine practitioners, some of whom drive more than 30,000 miles each year, increasing their statistical risk of an auto accident. Even those who don’t cover as many miles often multitask while driving, making them more inattentive to the road. Equine veterinarians are also at a heightened risk for injury simply from the size and reactivity of the animals they treat. Because a pregnant woman has a changed balance and body shape, taking your normal precautions might be inadequate. Getting help restraining patients and utilizing sedation are wise choices.
Weight Limit for Lifting
The weight limit for lifting in most healthy pregnancies is generally 25 pounds. In the last trimester, this amount decreases. If you must lift, bend at your knees, not your waist. Keep the load close to your body, and lift with your legs, not your back. Avoid twisting your body while lifting. Ask your assistant or a client to carry heavy equipment whenever possible, and be cautious with holding up hooves.
Because the first trimester is the time of the most crucial development, avoiding risks as soon as possible simply makes sense. Current occupational exposure limits were set based on studies of non-pregnant adults. What is considered safe for you might not be safe for your unborn baby. A fetus might be more vulnerable to some chemicals because of its rapid growth and development, particularly early in pregnancy when its organs are developing. Changes in your metabolism can also increase how quickly you absorb some substances.
If you cannot avoid taking radiographs, take steps to reduce the risk. Radiation exposure during your entire gestation should not exceed 500 mrem. The most dangerous time for radiation exposure is following conception (pre-implantation) up to the eighth week of pregnancy. Many pregnant women wear the same protective equipment while taking radiographs as they normally do, including an apron, thyroid shield, and lead gloves. However, because of changes in body shape, a wraparound lead apron might be better suited. Wearing an additional dosimeter badge at the level of your uterus can provide more specific measurements of exposure to the fetus. If you will be taking radiographs while pregnant, review the reports from your dosimeter badge for the last year to ensure that your equipment and radiation safety techniques are protecting you from excessive exposure.
Waste Anesthetic Gas
Waste anesthetic gas (WAG) exposure is a concern of many pregnant healthcare workers in human and veterinary medicine. Recent studies have demonstrated that “rates of spontaneous abortion and low birth weight infants were statistically similar among female veterinarians and lawyers,” leading one to conclude that WAG is being effectively scavenged in most settings. However, if you can smell anesthetic gas, the level is entirely too high for safe exposure, whether you are pregnant or not!
Some drugs prescribed to veterinary patients are dangerous for pregnant veterinarians to handle. Common examples are diethylstilbestrol (DES), chloramphenicol, misoprostol, cyclosporine, altrenogest (ReguMate®) and dinoprost tromethamine (Lutalyse®). Chemotherapy is designed to fight cancer by killing fast-growing cells. Hence, these cytotoxic drugs are very harmful to the fetus’s fast-growing cells. Ideally, pregnant women shouldn’t interact with patients receiving chemotherapy or be involved in its administration.
Formalin is the name for saturated (37%) formaldehyde solution. Study results vary with regard to the degree of risk that formaldehyde poses for pregnant women, but it is a known carcinogen and is linked to spontaneous abortion, congenital malformations and premature birth. Pregnancy is a particularly vulnerable time for exposure to indoor air pollutants such as formaldehyde. Avoiding contact with formaldehyde and formalin is wise during pregnancy.
Risk of Zoonotic Infections
Pregnant veterinarians are more susceptible to certain zoonotic infections owing to physiologic suppression of cell-mediated immunity. Conditions to which pregnant women are more susceptible include toxoplasmosis, lymphocytic choriomeningitis, brucellosis, listeriosis and psittacosis. Vertical transmission of certain zoonotic agents can result in miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth or fetal congenital anomalies. The NASPHV Compendium of Veterinary Standard Precautions is recommended as a resource to minimize these hazards. In addition, the University of Wisconsin has a webpage devoted to zoonoses and pregnancy.
Final Thoughts About Safety for Pregnant Veterinarians
Educate yourself about the specific risks in your workplace. Together with your employer and physician, you can decide if you need to take special precautions or modify your work duties during your pregnancy. You need to feel comfortable with your choices. Veterinarians are often perfectionists and feel they should be able to always perform at their peak. This can result in feeling like you are failing to be your best when you need to take a step back. In order to keep stress under control, be kind to yourself. Growing a baby is hard work!
 “Compendium of Veterinary Standard Precautions for Zoonotic Disease Prevention in Veterinary Personnel”,
National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians, JAVMA, Vol 247, No. 11, December 1, 2015 http://www.nasphv.org/Documents/VeterinaryStandardPrecautions. Accessed 1/29/23
 “Zoonotic Disease and Pregnancy” https://ehs.wisc.edu/labs-research/animal-research-safety/reproductive-hazards-in-animal-research/Accessed 1/29/23
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