Zoonotic Diseases and How Your Cat Can Make You Sick

Being cute and fuzzy may make you adorable, but unfortunately it does not preclude you from illnesses or diseases. In fact, just like other creatures, cats are no strangers to a variety of health issues. Cats that live on the street, wander outside, or live in multi-cat homes are more prone to illness. Some, but not all, illnesses can be prevented through proper immunization.

Many times diseases can be passed from mother to kitten either before birth or via breastfeeding. In situations where newborn cats do not breastfeed long enough, usually at least 3 months, they will be more prone to catching diseases simply because they will not benefit from their mother's antibodies. This will greatly reduce their chance of survival.

Most infectious diseases are not transferable to humans. However, there are some that can be passed on from cats to humans. The term for these is zoonotic, which are diseases which can be passed through saliva, bites, scratches, urine, feces, and vectors (e.g. a mosquito bites the cat, becomes infected, and then bites a human).

There are several reasons as to why cats are prone to illness from pathogens (bacteria, virus, fungus, parasites):

  • They spend time in soil. There are all sorts of pathogens that live in soil. When cats walk or roll in soil these pathogens get trapped in their fur or in their claws.
  • They poop where they walk. Cats are very good at digging a hole and then covering up their feces. However, in doing so their paws are digging into the same soil they poop in. This makes it very plausible for pathogens to get trapped in their paws or in their nails.
  • They lick their paws. So, once a pathogen is on their paws they will lick them and ingest the parasite. This parasite may grow in their gut and then will get passed out through their feces. From here they can infect other cats or continue to reinfect themselves.
  • They are quite prone to little bugs, such as mites or ticks, getting trapped in their fur. These mites can multiply, infecting the cat. Sometimes, these little critters also carry diseases that can infect the feline.
  • They can get bitten by mosquitoes and because of their fur you will never see the bitten area. Mosquitoes can carry pathogens and infect the cat.
  • They don't wash with soap and water. Although they spend a lot of time grooming, this does not get rid of the pathogens that may get trapped in their paws or nails.

Reducing the Risk of Your Cat Transmitting Diseases

  • Keep your cat 100% indoors.
  • Change his litter regularly.
  • Don't allow your cat to play in their litter, which sometimes kittens will do.
  • Wash your hands very thoroughly after cleaning their litter.
  • Don't allow your cat to play with outdoor cats or any other outdoor animal for that matter.
  • Make sure your cat gets the immunizations recommended by a vet. Although this is not a guarantee, it does provide some protection.
  • Regular deworming, as recommended by a vet.
  • If there is any sign of illness take your cat to the vet.
  • If your cat is injured by another cat, go to a vet to get the wounds cleaned properly.
  • If you take in a stray cat you should keep him separate from your other pets and take him to the vet for his immunizations and deworming immediately.
  • Trim your cat's nails regularly as this will reduce the area in which bacteria can grow.
  • If your cat scratches you or bites you, even playfully, wash the area thoroughly with warm water and soap.
  • Be aware that children, the elderly, or anyone with a weakened immune system is more vulnerable to catching something from a cat.
  • Train your cat to not climb on the kitchen counters. Before preparing food, disinfect any areas the cat may have climbed onto.
  • Keep your cat out of your bed. It may seem warm and cozy to have your cat lie in your bed, but that's a sure way to get all sorts of microbes where you are most vulnerable.

A Few Common Zoonotic Infectious Diseases

Cat Scratch

Cat Scratch: This is a bacteria that almost all cats have in their bodies. Usually it does not cause them harm but in humans it can cause illness. The bacteria can be found in the claws, and it is called cat scratch because it is transferred to humans when a cat scratches the skin. However, it can also be transferred when licked or when bitten, even lightly. Kittens are more likely to carry the bacteria in their blood. If a human is infected, and their immune system is not able to fight off the bacteria, usually the lymph nodes, closest to the site of entry, will become infected. This may cause the lymph node to swell and become hard, and sometimes painful. Other symptoms can include sore throat, headaches, and fever. The infection can last for up to four months. In rare cases the person may need antibiotics to help their body get rid of the bacteria.

Salmonella: This is a bacteria that can cause gastroenteritis. It usually affects kittens or cats with weak immune systems, especially if they live in unsanitary conditions. Cats that feed on raw meet or wild birds are more likely to become infected. The salmonella can live for several months in feces and soil. The infected cat may show symptoms such as diarrhea, vomiting, dehydration, and fever. After diagnosis antibiotics are usually prescribed.

Rabies: A zoonotic virus that is common in undeveloped countries. It is transferred through bites or scratches. If an animal is suspected of being infected it must be quarantined immediately. If a human gets infected they must receive the vaccine immediately, otherwise death is almost certain. Any animal that is suspected of having rabies should be avoided and the authorities should be contacted.

Fleas: Although fleas can't live on humans, their bite they can serve as a vector for bacteria, such as cat scratch. If a cat has fleas and they lick them they can become infected with tapeworms. Fleas can't be washed away. You need to apply special medicine onto your cat in order to get rid of them. Be warned, flea eggs are harder to kill and to get rid of.

Worms: There are many types including roundworms, hookworms, tapeworms, and whipworms. Worms are parasites that can live inside a cat's intestines. Through feces it can infect other animals and humans. For example, a child may play in soil, or touch the litter, where there is cat excrement. Cats can also become infected by flea bites. In some human cases this parasite can cause organ damage.

Ringworm Patch on Human

Despite its name, this is not a worm, but rather a fungus. It is spread by direct contact or via spores released into the environment. Many cats may have this fungus but do not show any signs of it. If your cat has patches of hair missing, ringworm is the first thing you should suspect. On humans it presents itself as red, slightly raised, round patches. Warning, it can spread easily and quickly and it can be very difficult to get rid of. Antifungal creams are needed and sometimes oral medication as well. The problem is, if it's not eradicated totally from the house it can reinfect. Do not touch a cat that you suspect has ringworm, or wear gloves if you must.

Pasteurella: A very common bacteria that cats carry in their mouths. It may seem cute, but kissing your cat or allowing him to lick you is a good way to acquire this bacteria. If contracted, it can result in fever and swelling at the site of contact.

Toxoplasmosis: This is a single-cell organism that can spread through a cat's feces or by a cat eating an infected animal. It can spread to humans via a litter box. The greatest risk is for a pregnant mother's baby, which can become quite ill if the mother contracts toxoplasmosis during her pregnancy. In some cases the fetus may die. There is also a lot of controversy, with no clear cut answers, as to this organism causing serious brain damage to people years after they have been infected. Most adults, with healthy immune systems, should be able to fight of any infection.

Heartworm: This parasite is often transmitted to a cat via a mosquito bite. The larvae will enter the blood vessel and be carried, and deposited, in the heart muscle, or sometimes in a lung where, with time, it will cause inflammation.

For indoor cats, with proper immunization and proper veterinary care, it is fairly easy to control zoonotic disease. However, for outdoor cats or for cats that go out and return home, it is much more difficult to control.

For more information we suggest you visit the Center For Disease Control website, where they keep up to date information.

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  1. My cat has a fungus and my hand has ringworms. I knew it was a cat fungus that had spread to me. Is there any home treatment or any other medicine to get rid of it? Js. And it's risky for us.

  2. Hi Adila.

    As you just learned ring worm is actually a fungus, and yes, it can spread easily from animals to humans, from animals to other animals, and from humans to other humans. If your cat goes outside, or comes in contact with other cats, there is a higher chance they will contract it from another animal. Usually, healthy cats with strong immune systems can fight the fungus, but not always. Now that you also have it you can easily pass it on to others around you, either by direct touch or by touching objects that they might touch. Sometimes your own immune system will destroy the fungus, but not always.

    It will not kill you, but it can spread to other parts of your body and it will look quite nasty. If it goes to your scalp you may start to lose hair.

    Anything you touch, like towels, bed sheets, will potentially be infected by the fungus. So, when you touch that object with another body part it can spread.

    I strongly suggest you visit your local doctor and get their opinion. There are prescription medications that you can purchase, with varying degrees of effectiveness. There are also home remedies you can try, again, with varying degrees of effectiveness. The only one I've tried, and it worked quite well, was sea water. If you don't live near the beach this might be difficult. However, you can try salt water, the more salt the better. Pour it over the affected area several times per day and let it air dry.

    Although there are many types of fungus/fungi, most of them are living, single-cellular organisms. Since they like warm moist places try to make the area less hospitable for them. Hence the salt water.

    Good luck.

    • I have two cats that are indoor cats. my cats lick me and play with me and I never get sick cuz they stay inside 24/7 and my neighbor my neighbor has cats that live outside and under his mobile home and I think that they have diseases and everything cuz as soon as I go out to my patio I get bit by something and I don't know what it is. My cats live to be 20 years old so I know that they're very well taken care of and they're clean they don't have fleas I give baths every periodically like maybe every 6 months. In fact my cat's never get sick at all I never have to take them to the vet. How can I find out if the cats next door have diseases?

      • Hi Vicky.

        Whether cats are totally indoors, or totally outdoors, or something in between is a personal choice. Some would argue that indoor cats are safer (cars, dogs, diseases, etc), while others would argue that a life outdoors is more natural, stimulating, and what cats were designed for.

        For sure cats that venture outside have a higher chance of getting various diseases, flees, ticks, etc. But with regular vet visit and immunization they can still live long lives.

        As for your neighbor's cats whether they have diseases or not most likely depends on how well he/she takes care of them: visits to the vet, flee meds, deworming, immunizations, etc. You cannot really know if they have anything unless you take the cat to the vet, or unless you see signs of disease on them. For example; missing fur could indicate some kind of fungus (ringworm), black stuff in their ears could indicate mites, constant scratching could indicate flees or ticks, pus from a would would indicate an infection.

        I hope this helps.

  3. My cat has fungus and i have ringworms on my hand. I dint know it was the cat fungus spread into me. Is there any home remedy or anythimg to get rid of it. And js it dangerous for us .
    Please reply as soon as possible.

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