What are Zoonotic diseases?
A zoonotic disease is an illness that can be transmitted between animals and humans. Typically the diseases tend to pass from animal to human but there are reported cases of human to animal infection.
What are the common zoonotic diseases in cats?
There are over a hundred diseases that can be zoonotic, but thankfully most of them are rare. Below are some of the most important and common diseases transmitted by cats.
Rabies is one of the most common zoonotic diseases in the world and humans can be infected by a wide variety of animals, including from cat bites. Thankfully the UK is a rabies free country (although a very few bats do carry a related virus). However, it is possible to become infected in many other countries. This is why all pets travelling outside of the UK are required to have a passport and rabies vaccination to help prevent them from becoming infected.
Rabies is a serious disease and is almost always fatal to any infected person or animal who develops symptoms. Symptoms in cats include a change in behaviour, excessive salivation, fever, dropped jaw, poor co-ordination, paralysis, and seizures. It is considered a notifiable disease in the UK, meaning any suspected cases must be reported immediately.
If you are concerned your cat has rabies, keep them contained, remain away from them and contact your vet immediately. If you feel you may have been bitten or scratched by a cat with rabies seek emergency medical attention immediately.
Toxoplasma is a parasite that infects cats and other mammals, such as sheep and humans. Humans can be infected through contaminated raw meat, infected tissue (e.g. sheep placenta) and cat faeces. Toxoplasma can cause abortion in humans and so it is recommended that pregnant women do not handle cat faeces/clean litter trays. Infection is also linked to increased risk-taking behaviour and depression in humans, but is usually self-limiting in non-pregnant adults
Symptoms in cats are usually limited to transient diarrhoea, but pregnant queens can abort or produce infected kittens (see toxoplasma factsheet for more details). Infected cats can be treated with medication from your vet.
BacteriaCats, as well as humans, naturally have bacteria such as Campylobacter and Salmonella in their intestines, and Pasteurella in their mouths. Cats that get diarrhoea will often have their faeces sent to the laboratory for culture to see what bacteria grow. Although zoonotic bacteria such as Campylobacter are commonly grown and reported, this does not guarantee they are the cause of the diarrhoea - they can be grown even in healthy cats with no disease.
In the rare event that your cat is diagnosed with a zoonotic bacterial infection, basic barrier nursing (see below) and hygiene can help protect you and your family. It is much more common for humans to get bacterial infections from cat bites than anything else. In the event of a cat bite the wound should be washed thoroughly as soon as possible and monitored for infection. You should seek medical advice for most cat bites, and definitely if you are at all concerned.
Cat Scratch Disease
Cat scratch disease is a rare disease caused by Bartonella henselae bacteria which is transmitted to humans by cat bites or scratches, and between cats by fleas. Although the bacteria are common in cats, transmission to people is quite unlikely. In cats, symptoms include a fever and swollen glands which may result in decreased appetite and lethargy. Antibiotics and supportive care can be given by your vet if your cat is affected. Symptoms in humans are similar - this disease causes systemic illness and not just swelling and redness around the scratch/bite. If you are concerned you might have been infected please see your doctor.
Ringworm is a common skin disease, usually caused by the fungus Microsporum, and sometimes Trichophyton, which can be transmitted from cats to people through direct contact. On cats, ringworm causes round patchy areas of fur loss with scaling of the skin especially around the head but the lesions are typically not itchy. It can be treated using topical medication, shampoos or oral medicine from your vet. Wearing gloves and/or washing your hands immediately after touching affected areas can help prevent you from becoming infected.
My cat has a zoonotic disease, how do I protect myself?
Basic hygiene, including hand washing whenever you have been in contact with your cat or handled their urine/faeces/food bowls, is normally enough to protect you from becoming infected.
In some cases, barrier nursing may be advised at home which includes wearing a protective gown, gloves, and mask when caring for your cat. If this is necessary your vet will advise you but feel free to ask what measures should be taken in your case. If anyone in your household is elderly, under age 5 or on immunosuppressive medication, such as chemotherapy, then please advise your vet as further measures may be needed in some cases.
What should I do if I think I have a zoonotic disease?
If you are unwell and concerned you may have a zoonotic disease please arrange to see a doctor immediately.