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Can my cat make me sick?

We love our cats! Around 4.9 million domestic cats share their lives with Australian families at last count. They are affectionate, entertaining and curious. Research has shown conclusively that their presence in our lives makes us happier and more emotionally healthy.
Unfortunately cats can carry germs that can affect humans, especially the pregnant, the very young and those with chronic disease. Thankfully, the illnesses are relatively minor and the risk of catching them from your cat can can be minimised with a few simple precautions.
Toxmoplasma gondi is a parasite that lives in the gut of cats and can be transmitted to other warm-blooded creatures, including people. The eggs are present in the poo from cats, in litter trays and in gardens where cats do their business. Symptoms can be like a mild flu but pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems are at much greater risk and should take extra precautions. Recent studies are now suggesting the possiblity of a link with the development of schizophrenia-like symptoms and suicide later in life.
Bartonella henselae (commonly known as cat-scratch disease) lives in the blood cells of cats. If you are bitten or scratched the bacteria can get into your system and cause flu-like symptoms. Cat scratch disease typically subsides without any treatment, usually within 2 to 4 months and the symptoms can be treated with common fever reducing drugs and pain killers. More severe reactions may cause swelling in the lymph nodes and may require antibiotics and draining of the lymph nodes by a doctor.
Ringworm is a fungal infection that is transmitted by direct contact between pets and people via fungal spores on the cat’s fur.  Treatment is by a topical wash, ointment, tablets, or a combination of all three. It is highly contagious and precautions include vacuuming up loose fur and treating the cat’s bedding.  It is easily treated in people by applying an ointment avaialble from your pharmacy.

The good news is…

Protecting yourself and your family from these and other cat-borne infections is relatively straightforward and quite familiar to us in these Covid times.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water or hand-sanitiser after handling cats food and water dishes, litterboxes, toys or cat saliva before you eat or drink.
  • Wear gloves or wash your hands after working in gardens that cats use.
  • Keep cats away from food preparation areas.
  • If you are bitten or scratched by a cat, no matter how minor the wound, wash it with warm soapy water immediately. If the wound is serious, if it becomes red or swollen or if it is more than five years since your last tetanus shot, seek medical attention.

These are three of the most common diseases that our cat friends can share with us but, with the precautions above, the chance of infection from any of these is very low.

If you would like to find out more, check out Toxoplasmosis on the Australian Government Department of Health website, Cat-scratch disease on the SA Health website and the Cat Protection Society of NSW Ringworm Factsheet.

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