If you enjoy snuggling with your feline friend, you may have wondered if there is any risk that humans and cats can share diseases. While a few infectious diseases may be contagious from people to cats, there is more of a concern that your cat could give you something.
Common Zoonotic Diseases From Cats
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), a zoonotic disease is an infection that can be shared with people and animals. These can include illnesses that are transmitted through direct contact with urine, feces or saliva, through insects like fleas and ticks, or by eating contaminated food.
While zoonotic diseases sound very exotic and rare, there are actually several that can commonly be caught from your cat.
This infection is not a worm, as the name sounds, but rather a fungal infection of the skin. Ringworm is common in cats but is not always contagious to people. VCA Animal Hospitals reports that several species of ringworm exist. Symptoms of ringworm in cats can be very mild and include:
- Hair loss
- Crusting and scaling of the skin
- Thickened or deformed nails
Ringworm is spread through contact with an infected cat or by the handling of contaminated brushes, bedding or other objects. You can avoid catching ringworm by avoiding contact with infected cats, especially if you have a break in your skin like a cut or blister. Wearing gloves and washing your hands after contacting an affected cat is also helpful in prevention. Ringworm spores can also cause infection and will remain in the environment. Clean surfaces with dilute bleach (one pint of bleach in one gallon of water).
In cats, several treatment options for ringworm exist, depending on the extent of the infection. These can include a medicated dip, over-the-counter or prescription topical medications, or oral antifungal drugs.
Toxoplasmosis is caused by a microscopic parasite called Toxoplasmi gondii. This infection is common in cats, but the CDC reports that a person is more likely to catch this infection by eating undercooked pork, lamb or venison. Cats catch toxoplasmosis if they eat a small animal that is infected. Most cats fight off the infection and don't get sick, but they can still pass the infection in their stool for a few weeks. You can catch toxoplasmosis from your cat if you accidentally ingest something contaminated with cat feces at this time.
When cats do get sick with toxoplasmosis, the Cornell Feline Health Center lists the following possible symptoms:
- Poor appetite
- Lethargy or listlessness
- Respiratory disease
- Eye changes
- Neurological disease
Cats with toxoplasmosis are treated with antibiotics. Sometimes other medications are needed for supportive care if the cat is very sick.
You can avoid catching toxoplasmosis by practicing good hygiene when cleaning your cat's litter box. Anyone who is immunocompromised, as well as pregnant women, should be extra careful or avoid contact with the litter box completely, as they are at greater risk from toxoplasmosis.
Did you know that you can get food poisoning from your cat? A cat that eats a raw diet or hunts and kills birds or small prey can catch infections like Salmonella or Campylobacter. In turn, your cat can pass these bacteria in its feces where you could catch the same infection.
Cats with these bacterial infections may have symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, fever, abdominal pain, weight loss or lethargy. Some cats have no symptoms and still appear healthy, so there is no way to know if you're at risk. Prevent these infections by generally practicing good hygiene after handling your cat and before preparing food or eating. Avoid feeding your cat a raw diet and keep cats indoors to limit hunting activities.
Other zoonotic types of food poisoning can occur from parasites such as Giardia or Cryptosporidium, but cats are not the most common source of these infections.
Worms and Parasites
A few types of worms and parasites can be transmitted from cats to people. You can avoid these by staying out of areas that tend to harbor cat feces, such as soil and sand, especially in gardens, near buildings, and in children's sandboxes. Wear gloves and wash your hands if you do need to be in these areas, or cover your work area with a tarp or other waterproof sheet.
- Hookworms (Ancylostoma) can cause cutaneous larval migrans in people. The Companion Animal Parasite Council (CAPC) reports that the worm burrows directly into your skin (often in the hand or foot) and causes an itchy wavy skin rash. In a more severe form, called visceral larval migrans, the worm can cause severe abdominal pain and changes in the blood counts.
- Roundworms (Toxocara) are also common in cats. These worms can cause visceral larval migrans when the feces is inadvertently ingested from contaminated soil. Young children are particularly susceptible. Avoid roundworm infections by making sure that children wash their hands after playing in public parks where stray cats may roam. Discourage children from eating dirt or putting other outdoor items in their mouths. Visceral larval migrans can cause the following symptoms in people:
- Enlarged liver
- Lung disease
- Changes in the blood counts (eosinophils)
- Progressive neurological disease
- Chronic abdominal pain
Cats with worms may have no symptoms at all or could experience vomiting, diarrhea, poor weight gain, or visible worms in the stool. Young animals are particularly susceptible. Your veterinarian can either test your pet's feces for these worms or give a general deworming medication if testing isn't practical.
Rare Zoonotic Diseases From Cats
Cats can carry some very dangerous infections, but fortunately, these are less common than something like ringworm.
Cat Scratch Disease
This disease is thought to be caused by a bacterium known as Bartonella henselae, and causes infection when a cat scratches or bites you, or even when it licks any open wounds you may have. The CDC reports that the site of the bite or scratch can appear red or swollen, but then you can experience fever, poor appetite, headache, exhaustion, and swollen and painful lymph nodes. Prevent infection by washing any cat scratches or bites well with soap and water.
Most cats with a Bartonella infection have no symptoms of disease and treatment is generally not needed. In children younger than 5, or in people with compromised immune systems, sometimes Cat Scratch Disease can cause more serious illness.
Rabies is a viral infection that can affect all mammals. It is transmitted through bites from an infected animal. According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, in the United States, cats are the most common domestic animal to be reported with rabies. Symptoms of rabies in cats include:
- Erratic behavior
- Pupil dilation
- Loss of appetite
- Aggressive behavior
- Hypersensitivity to environmental stimuli
- Lack of coordination
- Not using the hind legs
Avoid rabies by keeping your pets up to date on their vaccinations. Do not handle stray animals and seek medical attention if you are bitten or scratched by a wild animal or stray cat. There is no treatment for rabies once the symptoms start, and it is almost 100 percent fatal.
The Black Death wiped out a large percentage of Europe and Asia's population in the 1300s, and the same bacteria is still around today. Yersinia pestis causes plague and can be carried by several species of mammals through flea bites. Cats in the Southwestern and Western U.S. are one of the more common sources of the plague in people. The American Veterinary Medical Association reports that symptoms of plague in cats can include lethargy, anorexia, dehydration, vomiting, diarrhea, enlarged lymph nodes, coughing, labored breathing or shock.
People with the plague can develop fever, nausea, headache, vomiting, back pain and swollen and painful lymph nodes. In severe cases, humans can develop septicemia or the pneumonic form of the disease.
Avoid the bubonic plague by making sure that your pets do not have fleas. Your veterinarian can help suggest products and strategies for this. Reducing rodent populations and avoiding contact with heavily rodent-infested areas is also important.
Can Humans Give Cats Diseases?
It is also possible for cats to catch some human diseases, but it is far less common than the reverse.
- Influenza - Influenza is known for affecting many species, and there have been a few reports of cats contracting flu viruses from people. However, these cases are rare and not widespread. But since flu viruses do mutate frequently, your cat could potentially be at risk in the future.
- Strep - Likewise, cats can catch a Strep infection from people. This is not routinely recognized though.
- Food Poisoning - For people infected with food-borne illness, your cat could catch one of these infections in the same way that you could catch one from them. Practice good hygiene if you have diarrhea or vomiting and keep your cats away while you are sick with these symptoms.
- Staph - Resistant bacterial infections such as methicillin-resistant Staph aureus (MRSA) can affect both people and cats. These infections are also uncommon in cats. Symptoms could include wounds that don't heal or unusual skin rashes. Treatment will require special antibiotics after your veterinarian performs a culture.
Use Good Hygiene and Vaccines
Don't let worries about disease stand between you and your pets. Most zoonotic diseases can be avoided by using sensible hygiene measures and keeping up with your cat's vaccinations and other preventive care. While it's good to be aware, an ounce of prevention goes a long way toward keeping you healthy.