Expert Tips on Stray Cat Diseases

Kelly Roper
Dr. Hohenhaus

For stray cats, diseases can be a fact of life, and some of these illnesses can be transmitted to humans or other pets. Get expert advice on how to handle a stray cat to prevent the spread of diseases like toxoplasmosis and bartonellosis.

Topic: Stray Cat Diseases

Dr. Ann Hohenhaus is Chairman of the Department of Medicine at The Animal Medical Center of New York, the city's largest facility for animal care, research and education. As such, she has firsthand knowledge of the health risks stray cats face while living life on the streets. She also understands the risks good Samaritans face when they try to care for these poor creatures.

Dr. Hohenhaus, are stray cats more prone to disease than the average pet? If so, why?

Yes, stray cats are typically more prone to disease than the average house cat. This is due to many factors. A stray is more likely to have never been vaccinated. Malnutrition also weakens a cat's ability to fight off infections and illness. Cats that aren't spayed/neutered can also transfer infections/illnesses during breeding, and queens become run down having multiple litters.Strays are exposed to a number of health risks on a daily basis. These include:

  • Exposure to other cats that are sick
  • Exposure to other animals that transmit disease, such as mice that carry Toxoplasmosis
  • Wounds caused from fighting
  • Traumas caused by getting hit by a car

What kinds of diseases are most commonly found in stray cats?

Cat in tree

Many cat diseases are transmitted from cat-to-cat, often from mother to kitten. This can happen through biting, or, like the common cold, by air. In my opinion, Felv/FIV retroviral infections, which are related to cancer and immunosuppression, are some of the most prevalent diseases found in stray cat populations.Other infectious diseases found in these populations are the same ones your cat is vaccinated against. These include calicivirus and rhinotracheitis, which are upper respiratory viruses. These diseases make cats sick, but they probably won't kill the cat unless it has other concurrent problems or is a severely affected kitten. Panleukopenia is another serious intestinal infection that destroys white blood cells, reducing a cat's ability to fight off opportunistic infections. It's totally preventable by vaccination, but cats that get the disease rarely survive, even with veterinary intervention.

Can any of these stray cat diseases be transmitted to humans? If so, what can people do to lower their risk?

The major risk to good Samaritans in adopting a feral cat is being bitten, so it's very important to take great care when handling a semi-wild feline. The United States Public Health Service has identified five diseases which can be transmitted from cats to humans. These are of special concern for people with compromised immune systems.

The list includes:

  • Salmonellosis: A bacterial infection that causes diarrhea
  • Bartonellosis: Also known as cat scratch disease
  • Cryptosporidiosis: Causes diarrhea
  • Toxoplasmosis: Spread to humans via contact with cat feces
  • Campylobacterosis: Another diarrhea causing organism

These diseases are spread in feces so common-sense hygiene practices such as hand washing and wearing gloves should be followed when managing the litter box of a newly acquired stray cat. Any cat enthusiast with a compromised immune system should discuss pet ownership with both their physician and veterinarian before deciding whether to adopt a cat.

How common is rabies in stray cats?

Stray cat roaming

Rabies is transmitted by the bite of a rabid animal. Currently, the most important reservoir of rabies in the USA is wild animals such as raccoons, skunks, foxes and bats. However, 269 cases of feline rabies were reported in the USA in 2005, the most currently tabulated data. So, it is possible for stray cats to transmit rabies to humans.

How safe and effective do you think trap, test, vaccinate, alter and release (TTVAR) programs are for strays?

Actually, these programs have been shown to decrease the feral cat population, but not completely eliminate it. Happily, there do not seem to be any major adverse effects for cats in TTVAR programs. Current studies report low risk of anesthetic complications and no major adverse reactions from vaccination.

An Ongoing Issue

Strays will continue to be an issue in the foreseeable future. If you're interested in helping and learning more about TTVAR programs, contact your veterinarian or local Humane Society.

Expert Tips on Stray Cat Diseases