Cats and your health: Can a feline friend make you sick?
While they make popular pets, cats can pass on sometimes harmful infections to people. Here’s what you can do to keep yourself and your feline healthy.
About 3.9 million cats live in Australian homes and in most cases, cats and humans live together comfortably.
Sometimes, however, cats may pass on infections to people and occasionally with lethal results.
A study led by Professor Sarah Legge from the Australian National University and University of Queensland suggests cat-dependent diseases may cause more than 550 deaths and about 8500 hospital admissions a year.
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So what are the potential health risks to humans from cats?
Toxoplasmosis is one of the most common infections passed from cats to people.
“We estimate there are 125,000 new toxoplasmosis infections in people in Australia each year,” reported Prof Legge in the study.
Toxoplasmosis is caused by a parasite that lives in a cat’s gut.
The parasite eggs are carried in cat poo, which can contaminate garden soil and kitty litter and be transferred hand to mouth.
“While it rarely causes disease, toxoplasmosis infection is quite common in cats and humans,” says Sarah Zito, senior scientific officer at RSPCA Australia.
“It is only a concern if a person is pregnant or has a condition affecting their immunity.”
Signs, prevention and treatment of toxoplasmosis
People usually have no signs of infection but may experience flu-like symptoms.
Medication may be recommended.
Reduce the risk by changing cat litter boxes daily and then thoroughly washing hands with soap and water.
Do not feed cats raw meat as this can also carry the infection.
Toxoplasmosis is also commonly spread through eating infected raw or undercooked meat so cooking food to safe temperatures, washing all fruits and vegetables before eating and washing hands and surfaces after handling raw meat are also important.
“This isn’t actually a worm but a fungal disease that affects skin, hair and nails,” says Sarah.
The fungus lives in soil, on animals and on people and infection can occur through a small break in the skin.
Signs, prevention and treatment of ringworm
“If infected, humans usually get a circular skin rash that is commonly scaly, red and itchy although it may look different to this,” says Sarah.
Reduce the spread by segregating an infected cat in the home and always wash your hands after touching your cat.
Ringworm can also spread from infected cat hair or skin cells left on bedding and grooming tools, so it is important to clean these, too.
Topical cream may be used as a treatment.
Female roundworms produce eggs carried in cat poo.
The worms are white and spaghetti-like and cats pick them up through litter trays, soil or infected birds and rodents.
Signs, prevention and treatment of roundworm
In people, roundworm symptoms are usually mild but it can cause more serious problems in the eyes or heart.
Reduce the risk of roundworm by giving your cat regular parasite treatments and always wash hands after changing litter or picking up cat poo.
Cat scratch disease
“This disease is caused by bacteria transmitted from cats to humans by biting and scratching,” says Sarah.
Signs, prevention and treatment of cat scratch disease
Symptons of CSD include swollen lymph nodes and sometimes fever and headaches, but complications are rare.
If you get bitten or scratched by a cat, call your GP.
Thoroughly wash the bite or wound and see your GP promptly if there is swelling, pain or sign of infection.
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Top health tips for cat owners
- Wash your hands after touching or being near animals.
- Make sure your cat has regular veterinary checks and that you use regular effective parasite control.
- Don’t let your cat lick your mouth.
- Prevent children from playing in soil or sandpits contaminated with cat poo.
Written by Sarah Marinos.