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Zoonotic Diseases of Cats: You may have heard the term “zoonotic” and wondered what exactly does that mean? Zoonotic diseases are diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans. In this article we will focus specifically on diseases that have the potential for being transferred from your cat to you or other people, and what you can do to prevent this from happening.
Rabies is a deadly virus that can be quickly transmitted through the bite or saliva of an infected cat. Thankfully, due to laws in place requiring cats to be vaccinated for rabies, the virus is rare in cats in North America. However, it is still present in wildlife, and if your cat is not up to date on their rabies vaccine, they are at risk of acquiring it by coming into contact with wildlife, and can then transmit it to people. Additionally, rabies is still a cause of human death in other parts of the world, where vaccine campaigns have not been able to take off.
The best way to prevent your cat from getting rabies is to keep your cat up to date on their rabies vaccines and to prevent them from coming into direct contact with wild animals, such as raccoons, skunks, foxes, and bats. If they do come into direct contact with one of these wild animals, always have them evaluated by your veterinarian right away as they may need to have a booster of their rabies vaccine, even if they were just vaccinated a few months prior. Even if your cat is indoor only all the time, there is still a chance they could come into contact with a bat if a bat happens to get into the home, which happens more than you think.
If you come across a stray cat that is acting off or just doesn’t seem quite right, it is best to call animal control and let them come to get it, instead of risking you and your family’s health. Even though rabies is rare in cats in North America, there are still cases of feline rabies reported every year.
Roundworms are intestinal parasites that cats can acquire either from their mother or by coming into contact with soil or other cats’ stools that are infected. Cats ingest it through their mouth and then pass the worms and their eggs in their stool. Sometimes you can’t even see any worms in their stool, as they are only passing microscopic worm eggs.
If a person comes in direct contact with the infected soil or stool, there is a chance the person can inadvertently ingest them and become infected. This is more of a concern for children since they like to play in dirt and put things in their mouths. In children and adults, roundworms can migrate to various organs in the body, causing them to become sick. They can sometimes even migrate to the eye, having the potential to cause blindness.
It is for this reason it is highly recommended to always wash your hands after cleaning your cat’s litter box and do not let children in the home play with, in, or around the litter box. If your cat is allowed to go outside, try to prevent them from defecating freely in the yard. Leaving the stool to sit on the ground provides a nourishing environment for these worm eggs to thrive and hatch, putting children at risk of becoming infected, and putting other cats at risk of becoming infected.
Other ways to prevent this is to keep your cat on monthly heartworm and parasite prevention, and even have your cat’s stool examined by your veterinarian every year. Additionally, maintaining good hygiene and washing your hands after playing outside or gardening, and always prior to eating are good means of prevention.
Just like roundworms, hookworms are transmitted to kittens from their mothers and to cats by coming into contact with infected soil or remnants of other cats’ stool. However, people become infected with hookworms in a different way than they do with roundworms. Hookworm larva can actually penetrate a person’s skin and then migrate through their skin, causing itchiness and infection. This usually happens when someone walks outside barefoot and steps in an area where a cat had defecated who had hookworms. This does not necessarily mean they have to directly step on dog stool, as the larva can survive in the soil even if the stool is no longer there.
Therefore, the best way to prevent this is by wearing shoes outside, especially in areas where a cat may have defecated. Additionally, keeping your cat up to date on their monthly heartworm and parasite prevention is key, as well as having your cat’s stool evaluated by a veterinarian yearly to make sure they don’t have any parasites. Finally, always wash your hands after cleaning your cat’s litter box.
Ringworm is actually a fungus, not a worm. It gets its name because it causes a worm-like lesion in the shape of a ring on your body. It can be spread through direct skin-to-skin contact or even through being aerosolized, infecting the skin and causing itchy scabs. It’s more of a concern for people with compromised immune systems, as their body can have a harder time fighting it off.
Long-haired cats, specifically long-haired kittens, can be the hidden source of a ringworm infection if someone in the home all of a sudden has ringworm. The skin lesion can be hiding on the cat underneath all of their fur and they may not even be showing any signs of discomfort or itchiness. If a cat in the home has ringworm, it can be fairly easy to transfer to susceptible people just by petting the cat or even from coming into contact with contaminated fur lying around the home. Cats can become infected with ringworm either by direct contact with other dogs or cats, or by being groomed with infected grooming supplies. Ringworm is not always itchy in cats, and can sometimes be more of a problem in cats with compromised immune systems, just like people. Sometimes the only sign of ringworm in cats is a circular area of hair loss with a red scab-like lesion around the outer edge of the circle.
If you are concerned your cat may have ringworm, have them examined by your veterinarian so they can do a test to confirm whether or not ringworm is likely to be present. As a precautionary measure, do not directly touch the area in question on your cat and wash your hands and your cat’s bedding frequently.
If you or someone in your household develops skin lesions that resemble ringworm, always check with your doctor to get diagnosed and started on medications, if warranted.
Cat Scratch Fever (Bartonellosis)
Cat Scratch Fever is caused by a bacteria called Bartonella henselae. People can get infected with it through the scratch of an infected cat or kitten. Cats and kittens usually acquire it through the bite of an infected flea, though it can also be transmitted to cats through the bite of another cat. It is actually very common in the cat population and most cats and kittens who carry it do not get sick and never need to be treated. Even if you do become infected, it is not recommended to treat your cats unless they also become sick. This is because treating them with a long course of antibiotics could lead to bacterial resistance and still not even completely kill off all of the Bartonella their body may be harboring.
Cat Scratch Fever is most often spread to people through the scratch of a kitten who is a healthy carrier of it. This means the kitten is not sick or showing any symptoms. Once a person is infected, they will usually develop a swollen lymph node and fever, and it can be treated with antibiotics.
Here are steps you can take to decrease the risk of becoming infected with the bacteria that causes Cat Scratch Fever:
- Always wash the site of a cat scratch with warm soapy water soon after the scratch occurs
- Treat your kittens (and cats) for fleas immediately when you see them
- Continue giving your cat monthly flea prevention, especially during the spring, summer, and fall months
Toxoplasmosis is caused by a protozoal parasite that is spread in the feces of infected cats. Cats become infected with it by hunting and eating prey, such as mice and other wild rodents. It is more of a concern for people with compromised immune systems (because their immune system isn’t strong enough to keep it at under control) and for pregnant women, as it has the potential to be passed through the placenta to the fetus and cause fetal harm. It is for this reason that pregnant women should ideally let someone else in the home clean the cat’s litter box throughout the course of their pregnancy.
Cats will occasionally become sick from it, especially if they have compromised immune systems themselves, but many cats will be infected with the parasite and never show signs of sickness. Therefore, even if your cat is healthy, you cannot be sure that your cat isn’t a carrier of the parasite that causes toxoplasmosis.
It’s also important to know that most people who do acquire this infection get it from eating raw or contaminated meat and not from their pet cat. That being said, it’s best to take the following precautions if you are pregnant or have a compromised immune system to decrease the risk of you becoming infected from your cat:
- Keep your cat’s litter box away from the kitchen or where food is prepared
- If you are pregnant or have a compromised immune system, have someone else in the home clean out your cat’s litter box for you
- If no one is able to help you, clean your cat’s litter box daily as this gets rid of the stool before the parasite has time develop into its infective stage
- Wear disposable gloves when cleaning the litter box
- Always wash your hands right after cleaning the litter box
- Wash the litter box twice a month with hot water, letting the water sit for at least 5 minutes
- Try to not allow your cat to go outside and hunt for prey
There are other zoonotic diseases that cats have the potential to spread, but these are the most common. It’s also important to note that although zoonotic diseases may sound distressing, they are very preventable if the recommended preventative steps are taken.
If you ever have any concern about the risk your cat or a future cat may pose to your health or your family’s health, consult with your veterinarian and your family physician to discuss your concerns, and to set out a plan of action to make sure your concerns are understood and addressed appropriately, as there are usually many ways to be able to keep your cat a part of the family.