Diseases That “Jump” from Cats to People

How to protect yourself.


Information has been changing very fast when it comes to the spread of COVID-19, but as of this writing, there have been no reported cases of cats with the disease infecting people. It’s true that two cats in the United States have tested positive, as well as one in Hong Kong and potentially one in Belgium. But those cats appear to have gotten the disease from people rather than the other way around. In fact, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) said in a recent posting that “human and animal health organizations agree that there is currently no evidence that dogs or cats in a home environment can be a source of COVID-19 infection in other animals or humans.”

In an effort to protect cats from people with the disease, the AVMA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture all recommend that people with COVID-19 limit contact with animals until more information is known. If possible, those organizations say, another member of the household who does not have the virus should take care of feeding and playing with pets. If ill people must care for pets, it is recommended they wash their hands before and after interacting with the animals and wear a cloth face covering.

It makes sense that a house cat would be a very unlikely source of infection for people. Pretty much the only people indoor cats come in contact with are those they live with. And if there is a dog in the home who is walked on leash and kept at least 6 feet away from other people and out of bustling dog parks, transmission from the dog to the family cat should not be a worry. (And it has not at all been shown that dogs can pass the disease to cats — or to people — in the first place.)

But there are several other diseases that can jump from cats to people. Fortunately, the risk for transmission of these zoonotic diseases — illnesses that people can get from animals — is low. Better still, it’s easy to take measures to protect yourself. Here are the more common diseases transmissible from cats to people cited by the American Association of Feline Practitioners.

Cat scratch fever. If a cat scratches or bites a person, it can transmit bacteria that cause fever and enlarged lymph nodes. Those bacteria are transmitted to cats via flea feces. That’s why you should always use monthly flea (and tick) preventatives even on indoor cats. If you keep fleas away from them, you minimize the risk. (But do seek medical attention if you are scratched or bitten by a feline.)

Gastrointestinal upset. A number of parasites and harmful bacteria are passed in cat feces, with the risk greatest if your pet has diarrhea. To cut down on the chances of transmission, routinely deworm your cat; wash your hands frequently after handling cats; clean the litter box every day; wear gloves to handle soil in your garden or a potted plant that could be contaminated with cat feces; and don’t feed your cat raw food, which may be laced with bacteria that cause food borne illness.

Ringworm. This fungus can lead to skin lesions in people. It infects cats’ hair shafts, so regularly clean your cat’s blankets and resting spots, get rid of hairs from his grooming brush, and vacuum your home consistently.

Rabies. Chances are scant to nil that your indoor cat will carry this disease, which can be transmitted to you via a bite. But because rabies is deadly — and entirely preventable — make sure your pet is vaccinated against it.

Toxoplasmosis. The fear of this disease far outweighs the actual risk. But because it can lead to fever and fatigue in people along with other symptoms (the risk is greatest to a developing fetus and anyone with a severely compromised immune system), it’s best to make sure you don’t come in contact with the Toxoplasma gondii parasite in cat feces that can cause it. It is transmitted via ingestion, so never eat anything after cleaning your cat’s litter box without washing your hands. Ditto for washing your hands after handling raw produce. The parasite gets around.


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