By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 6 December 2011)
The risk of acquiring zoonotic diseases (illnesses that can be transmitted from animals to people) can be significantly reduced by taking simple precautionary measures. The following are some common zoonotic illnesses that can pass from cats to humans.
Cat Scratch Disease
Each year about 25,000 people across the United States are diagnosed with cat-scratch disease (also known as cat scratch fever), a bacterial infection transmitted via scratches or bites from infected cats. Kittens are more likely to transmit the disease than adult cats.
Symptoms of cat-scratch disease include swollen lymph nodes, headache, fever, muscle and joint soreness, appetite loss, and fatigue. Most of those infected recover completely, though it may take a few months until symptoms have completely abated. However, the disease can have harsher consequences for people with compromised immune systems.
To prevent cat-scratch disease:
- Don’t allow children to play roughly with cats, particularly kittens.
- Wash scratches or bites thoroughly with soap and water.
- Eliminate fleas, which can spread the disease from one cat to another.
This bacterial infection causes stomach pain, fever, vomiting, and diarrhea, with symptoms usually beginning around 1-3 days after transmission. Although the illness usually goes away on its own, some cases are severe enough to require medical attention. Young children and those with compromised immune systems are particularly vulnerable.
Salmonella infection is usually caused by eating undercooked eggs, poultry, and other contaminated food, but pets (particularly those that prey on wild animals or are fed a raw diet) can also carry the bacteria in their feces. Reptiles, ducklings, and chicks present the highest risk of infection, but other animals may also transmit the bacteria.
To prevent salmonella infection:
- Don’t eat or feed pets raw or undercooked meat.
- Wash hands with soap and water after handling raw meat.
- Wear gloves when cleaning the litter box and wash hands thoroughly afterward, particularly if a cat has diarrhea.
Hookworms and Roundworms
Animals can harbour parasites such as hookworms and roundworms. Children may accidentally ingest the eggs of these parasites if they put their fingers in their mouths after playing in dirt or sand that has been contaminated with the feces of infected animals.
Hookworms cause painful, itchy skin infections or, if the eggs are ingested, intestinal inflammation and bleeding. Ingested roundworm eggs usually cause no apparent damage, but an infected person may develop a serious condition called visceral larval migrans that attacks the organs or the eyes, potentially causing irreversible damage. Puppies and kittens are more likely to transmit these parasites than adult animals.
To prevent parasite infections:
- Cover sandboxes when not in use.
- Make sure that children wash their hands before eating and after playing in dirt or sand.
- Check for and remove animal waste from areas where children play.
- Wash soil from vegetables before eating.
- Have pets dewormed by a veterinarian.
Rabies, a viral infection acquired via bites from infected animals, causes death if it is not treated before symptoms appear. To prevent infection, have cats vaccinated for rabies, and if bitten by an animal, wash the area thoroughly with soap and water and seek medical attention immediately.
Most other viruses aren’t transmissible from pets to humans. A cat can’t catch the common cold from his owner, and illnesses such as feline infectious peritonitis (FIP), feline leukemia (FeLV), and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV, the cause of feline AIDs) can’t be passed along to humans.
Ringworm is a fungus that can be transmitted via the fur or skin of an infected animal. People are more likely to get ringworm from kittens and puppies than adult animals. Those most likely to be infected include children, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems.
Infected pets shed spores around the house, so eradication requires thorough cleaning and disinfecting. For information on ringworm symptoms and preventing and treating ringworm infection, see Ringworm in Dogs and Cats.
Toxoplasmosis infection, which can have serious consequences for a developing fetus, is not transmitted through direct contact with cats. Rather, it is acquired through contact with animal feces or contaminated meat. Pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems don’t need to give up their pets, but they should have someone else deal with litter boxes or dog feces, or if this is not possible, wear gloves and wash their hands thoroughly afterward (wearing a mask is also a good idea). The same applies to digging in the garden.
Handling raw meat can be risky for those who are pregnant or have suppressed immune systems, so they should take the same precautions as they do with animal feces. Any meats consumed should be thoroughly cooked to kill the parasite. Feeding cats a raw diet also increases the risk of toxoplasmosis infection.
See Toxoplasmosis and Pregnancy for more information on toxoplasmosis risks, symptoms, and prevention.
General Precautions to Prevent Zoonotic Infection
The following are are some general precautions that can be taken to keep pets and people free from zoonotic disease:
- Wash hands frequently, especially after handling pets, cleaning litter boxes, preparing raw meats, and digging in the dirt, as well as before eating.
- Ensure that pets receive regular checkups and seek veterinary care immediately if they show signs of illness.
- Scoop litter boxes at least once per day, and clean them from time to time with detergent and scalding water.
- Eliminate fleas (see Natural Flea Control for safe, non-toxic options).
- Avoid feeding pets raw diets.
- Don’t let pets lick people’s faces, plates, or utensils.
- Teach children how to handle cats gently to reduce the likelihood of defensive scratches or bites.
- Keep cats indoors – outdoor cats are far more likely to pick up infections from other animals.
For more cat articles, see the main Cats page.
This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for veterinary consultation and care.
- American Association of Feline Practitioners and Cornell Feline Health Center, Cornell University, College of Veterinary Medicine. (15 November 2006). “Zoonotic Disease: What Can I Catch From My Cat?” Vet.Cornell.edu.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). “Zoonotic Diseases.” CDC.gov.