[From Tufts July 2011 Issue]
Recently, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s journal, Emerging Infectious Diseases, published an article that listed illnesses that people might contract if they get too close to their cats. Authors Bruno B. Chomel and Ben Sun examined cases of diseases that apparently healthy animals might have passed to their owners while they were all sleeping together in the same bed. The article generated nationwide headlines implying that people were risking their health if they shared their beds with their cats.
Such headlines do not impress Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, ACVA, ACVB, Professor and director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.
“My dog, Rusty, sleeps on my bed and so does my cat, Griswold,” says Dr. Dodman. “The chances of anything happening are infinitesimally small. I’m living proof.”
Dr. Dodman doesn’t deny that cats can transmit diseases to people, either directly or indirectly. Among the best known are rabies, hookworm, roundworm, tick-borne diseases, toxoplasmosis, bartonellosis (cat scratch disease) and fleas. More exotic diseases can also enter the mix. Cases cited by Drs. Chomel and Sun in the article include a case of plague contracted by a 9-year-old boy after the child slept with his flea-infested cat.
Reduce your health risks by following these tips
Rather than forgo the pleasures of close-contact feline companionship, Dr. Dodman suggests using basic common sense when interacting with one’s cat. He offers these strategies to stay healthy while maintaining close contact with a cat:
Keep your cat inside. A cat is much less likely to develop a zoonotic disease if the cat lives indoors, reports Dr. Dodman.
“My cat, Griswold, is strictly an indoor cat,” he notes. “We do the best we can to provide him with environmental stimulation and entertainment indoors.”
Take care of your cat. In addition to keeping your cat indoors, take any other steps necessary to keep him healthy and parasite free. Make sure he gets regular checkups, and take measures to prevent worm infestation, flea infestation and tick bites. In addition, be conscientious about having your cat immunized against zoonotic conditions such as rabies. Rabies vaccinations are required by state laws.
Take care of yourself. Get regular checkups, eat healthy foods, exercise regularly and do whatever else your doctor recommends to maintain optimum health and bolster your immune system. Healthy individuals have strong immune systems that are able to resist many communicable diseases.
Maintain cleanliness. Wash your hands after handling your cat, his food or his bedding, and after you change his litter. Use warm, soapy water and rinse thoroughly.
Stay informed. Living with a cat can entail risks to you and your family, acknowledges Dr. Dodman. He cites toxoplasmosis, which can cause birth defects if a pregnant woman contracts the disease from her cat. Moreover, a cat should not be allowed inside a room occupied by an infant in a crib. The pressure of the cat sleeping on the child’s chest can cause serious or even fatal breathing difficulties for the infant.
Use common sense. If your cat displays signs of illness, take him to your veterinarian to be examined, and keep him off your bed until the condition clears up.
“If you’ve got a flea bag of a cat that has toxoplasmosis, you probably shouldn’t sleep with him,” says Dr. Dodman.
Maintain perspective. No knowledgeable person would deny that cats can transmit some diseases to people. The question is, how likely is that transmission to occur, and do other activities carry more risk?
“There are risks associated with everyday life, but some people don’t seem to be able to assign a level of risk to those things,” says Dr. Dodman. “Ask what the risk is. The risks entailed in driving a car are much greater than those from a cat sleeping with you.”
In the end, says Dr. Dodman, a healthy, conscientious owner with a healthy cat is very unlikely to become seriously ill from sharing a bed.
“There is a laundry list of things that could happen,” acknowledges Dr. Dodman. “But if the animal is well kept — that is, gets regular veterinary care, is wormed and vaccinated and as long as it has no overt disease — the risks are minimal.”