What is a Zoonotic Disease?

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Zoonotic diseases (zoonoses) are illnesses that sometimes develop after being exposed to infectious organisms that are passed between animals and people. You can take precautions to minimize your risk of getting a zoonotic disease. Please note that your cat can be carrying an infectious organism but not show any visible signs of sickness. Also, in some situations, people can be a source of infection for cats (reverse zoonoses).

How are Zoonotic Diseases Spread?

Zoonotic diseases are spread through organisms that can be acquired from direct contact with infected cats, contact with contaminated food or water, from “vectors” (i.e. fleas, mosquitoes, or ticks), or from the shared environment. The organisms can be spread through a variety of ways including:

  • Saliva
  • Bites or Scratches
  • Fluids from the nose or a cough (i.e. nasal discharge, mucus)
  • Skin or hair
  • Feces
  • Urine
  • Vectors (i.e. fleas, mosquitoes, or ticks)

Examples of Common Cat-Associated Zoonoses

There are many zoonotic diseases that can be shared between cats and people. The following are a few examples:

Cat scratch fever – Bartonella spp. are the bacteria that cause fever and enlarged lymph nodes that frequently develop near a cat bite or scratch. It is passed in flea feces which can then contaminate the cat’s hair, claws, or mouth. This agent can also cause other inflammatory diseases like those caused by Lyme disease. To help prevent from getting cat scratch fever, use strict flea control and avoid bites or scratches.

Gastrointestinal (GI) – Many parasites (i.e. some tapeworms, roundworms, hookworms, or some strains of Giardia) and bacteria (i.e. Salmonella) are passed in cat feces. If your cat has diarrhea, the risk of zoonotic disease being passed is at its greatest. You can largely reduce this risk by:

  • routinely deworming your cat
  • washing your hands frequently after handling cats
  • cleaning the litter box every day
  • avoiding handling soil or produce that could be contaminated with cat feces
  • not allowing your cat to hunt live prey
  • feeding your cat high-quality commercial food

– This fungus can infect cat hair shafts and then contaminate the environment or infect you or others in your household. If your cat has ringworm, they may or may not have problems with their hair or skin. Should you or a family member develop skin lesions, your cat(s) should be evaluated by your veterinarian for this infection.

Rabies – This deadly virus is shed in the saliva of infected animals, including cats. Rabies is commonly transmitted by bites and is 100% preventable through vaccination. New feline rabies vaccines have minimal side effects and can protect your cat and family.

Toxoplasmosis – Only cats can pass the Toxoplasma gondii parasite in their feces. The parasite becomes infectious after about 24 hours in the environment, which is why it is recommended to clean the litter box everyday to reduce risk. Most cats only shed the organism for about 10 days and usually do not leave feces on their body. So, the risk of acquiring toxoplasmosis from touching your cat is extremely low.

Most human exposures occur from ingesting the parasite in the environment, where it can live for up to 18 months. This is why you should wash your hands after gardening, thoroughly wash your produce, and avoid drinking unfiltered water from the environment. Toxoplasmosis can also be acquired by eating undercooked meat. Most people exposed to the parasite never develop signs of toxoplasmosis. The greatest risk is to the fetus of pregnant women and those with severe immune deficiency.

Who is at Risk?

Zoonotic diseases are often more severe in people who have a weak or compromised immune system such as those being treated for cancer or those undergoing organ transplantation.

However, some zoonotic organisms, like the rabies virus, can cause illness in humans regardless of a person’s immune status. Therefore, precautions and preventive measures should always be taken in situations where direct or indirect animal exposure has occurred.

Decrease Your Risk! Prevention of Cat-Associated Zoonoses

There are many precautions you can take to reduce your risk of getting a zoonotic disease.

  • The most important thing you can do to avoid zoonotic diseases is to bring your sick cat to the veterinarian for diagnostic tests and treatments.Sick cats are more likely than healthy cats to pass zoonoses.
  • Annual physical checkups and wellness visits are crucial so you and your veterinarian can develop an individualized plan for your cat. This can help decrease the risk of you and your family acquiring a zoonosis.
  • Protect you and your cat by providing them with the internal parasite products recommended by your veterinarian to all of your cats, including those living indoors. Flies, cockroaches, and mosquitoes can still get into even the most well-secured house.
  • Use the optimal flea and tick control products recommended by your veterinarian to lessen the risk for diseases like cat scratch fever or Lyme disease. These diseases can unknowingly be brought into the home by you or another pet.
  • Litter boxes should be scooped at a minimum of once per day. Wash your hands after each contact with the litter box.  Wash the litter box every 1- 4 weeks using soap and hot water.
  • Sometimes animals defecate in dirt or plant beds. Wear gloves when gardening and wash hands thoroughly when finished.
  • Cats should not eat raw foods, raw diets, or undercooked foods. Do not share
    food utensils with cats.
  • Claws should be trimmed frequently to reduce the risk of deep scratches; claw covers can be considered.
  • If you or a family member are bitten or scratched by a cat, seek medical attention.
  • Good hygiene should always be maintained with pets. Wash your hands with soap and water after petting cats, cleaning food or water bowls, and after scooping the litter box.
  • Stray cats are best handled only by appropriately trained professionals.
  • If adopting a new cat, he or she should be quarantined from other cats and any immunocompromised person until a thorough physical examination and zoonosis risk assessment is performed by a veterinarian.
  • Discuss any human-related healthcare concerns with your veterinarian who can help to talk with your healthcare provider, especially if you are aware of any potential immunocompromised individuals within your household.

Thorough preventive care, it is possible to decrease the risk of exposure to many of these zoonoses.