Do Cats Have Diseases That Humans Can Catch?


Have you ever wondered if your feline friend could make you sick? While the bond between cats and humans can be loving and rewarding, cat owners need to be aware of potential health risks. Zoonotic diseases that originate in cats can in some cases spread to human beings and cause illness. However, with proper precautions, knowledge of risk factors, and prompt treatment if necessary, cat owners can continue to safely enjoy the companionship of their furry friends.

This article provides an overview of zoonotic diseases that can be transmitted from cats to humans. We will explore common illnesses like ringworm as well as more serious ones like cat scratch disease. You’ll learn how these diseases spread, ways to avoid infection, and what to do if you suspect you have a cat-related illness. While the risks are real, they can be managed with routine precautions like handwashing, parasite control, and awareness of disease warning signs. Armed with knowledge, cat owners can thrive with good health alongside their beloved companions.

Background on Zoonotic Diseases

Zoonotic diseases are illnesses that can be passed between animals and humans. According to the CDC, more than 6 out of 10 known infectious diseases in humans can be spread from animals. Scientists estimate that 3 out of every 4 new or emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic in origin ( Some of the most common examples of zoonotic diseases include rabies, salmonella, Lyme disease, and Ebola. The World Health Organization states that zoonoses comprise a large percentage of all newly identified infectious diseases as well as many existing ones (

Zoonotic diseases are a major public health concern globally. They can be spread to humans through direct contact with infected animals, by consuming contaminated food or water, or via vectors like mosquitos or ticks. Proper handwashing, cooking food thoroughly, avoiding contact with wild animals, and preventing pets from interacting with wildlife can help reduce the risk of contracting a zoonotic illness.

Diseases Cats Can Carry

Cats can carry and transmit several diseases to humans. Some of the most common and concerning diseases cats may spread include:


Toxoplasmosis is a disease caused by the Toxoplasma gondii parasite. Cats are the definitive host for T. gondii, meaning the parasite can sexually reproduce and complete its entire lifecycle only within cats. The parasite is shed in the feces of infected cats. Humans can contract toxoplasmosis by ingesting contaminated food or water or coming into contact with cat feces that contains oocysts. Pregnant women have an increased risk of transmitting toxoplasmosis to their unborn baby. Most healthy adults infected with toxoplasmosis do not have symptoms, but the disease can cause serious complications in immunocompromised people and infants born with congenital toxoplasmosis. There is no vaccine for toxoplasmosis in cats, so prevention relies on proper hygiene and preventing cats from hunting and eating raw meat that may contain tissue cysts.[1]

Cat Scratch Disease

Cat scratch disease (CSD) is an infection caused by the bacterium Bartonella henselae. As the name suggests, people usually contract CSD from a bite or scratch from an infected cat. Kittens are more likely to spread B. henselae than adult cats. Symptoms of CSD can include swollen lymph nodes, fatigue, fever, and a papule or pustule at the initial scratch site. CSD is generally self-limiting in healthy people but may require antibiotics in severe cases. There is currently no vaccine available for cats against Bartonella henselae.[2]


Ringworm is a fungal skin infection caused by several species of fungi in the genus Microsporum and Trichophyton. Ringworm infection produces circular patches of hair loss and scaly skin on a cat’s face, ears, legs and tail. Humans can catch ringworm through direct contact with an infected cat. Ringworm causes itchy, red circular lesions on the skin in people. Oral and topical antifungal medications are used to treat ringworm in both cats and humans. Keeping the environment clean is crucial to preventing recurrent infections.[3]

Additional concerning zoonotic diseases cats may transmit include rabies, plague, and various parasitic infections. Responsible pet ownership and hygiene are key to reducing transmission risks.


How Humans Contract Diseases from Cats

There are several ways humans can catch diseases from cats:

Bites and scratches
Cat bites and scratches can transmit bacteria that cause infection. Cat scratch disease, caused by the bacterium Bartonella henselae, can result in fever, swollen lymph nodes, and fatigue in humans. According to the CDC, cat bites have a high risk of infection since cat teeth puncture deep into skin allowing bacteria to enter.

Ingesting feces
Humans can get sick from accidentally ingesting cat feces that contain parasites like Toxoplasma gondii or roundworms which can cause toxoplasmosis or stomach issues. Cats use litter boxes and sometimes feces can get tracked around the home. Proper hygiene like washing hands after cleaning litter boxes reduces risk.

Inhaling airborne pathogens

Some illnesses can be transmitted through the air from cats to humans. The fungus Cryptococcus can cause lung infections if inhaled from areas contaminated with infected cat feces. Similarly, humans can contract bordetellosis, a respiratory illness, if exposed to kittens carrying the bacteria Bordetella bronchiseptica.

Fleas and ticks
Cats can carry fleas and ticks which may transmit diseases like typhus, spotted fever or cat scratch fever between cats and humans by biting. Checking cats for parasites and using flea/tick prevention reduces risk.

Risk Factors for Transmission

Certain groups of people are at higher risk for contracting diseases from cats. This includes people with compromised immune systems, pregnant women, and those exposed to cat feces or saliva.

People with weakened immune systems due to conditions like HIV/AIDS, cancer treatment, or autoimmune disorders are more susceptible to zoonotic diseases. Their bodies have a harder time fighting off infections. Diseases that may produce mild symptoms in healthy individuals could become serious or even fatal in immunocompromised people. It’s critical for these high-risk groups to take precautions around cats and be aware of potential zoonotic transmission routes (CDC).

Pregnant women are also at increased risk as certain pathogens can be passed to the fetus and cause birth defects, miscarriage, or stillbirth. Toxoplasmosis is one zoonotic disease pregnant women should be particularly cautious about when cleaning litter boxes or gardening in areas cats may have defecated (Cornell).

Cleaning cat litter boxes is a primary route of exposure to parasites and infections shed in cat feces. Using gloves, washing hands afterwards, and avoiding touching the face can help reduce the risk. Pregnant women should avoid cleaning litter boxes entirely. Letting cats lick open wounds or scratches can also transmit diseases like cat scratch fever from saliva (CDC).

Precautions for Cat Owners

There are several precautions cat owners can take to reduce the risk of contracting a zoonotic disease from their feline companions:

Don’t allow cats to lick open wounds on your skin. Cat saliva can contain bacteria that may cause infection if introduced into your bloodstream through a cut or scratch.

Wash your hands with soap and warm water after petting, holding, or having other contact with cats. This helps remove germs that could otherwise be accidentally ingested or spread.

Control fleas, ticks, and other parasites on your cats. Some zoonotic diseases are transmitted by bites from infected ticks and fleas. Regular use of veterinarian-recommended flea/tick prevention aids in breaking this potential chain of transmission.

Have your cats examined by a veterinarian at least once yearly. Wellness exams allow early detection and treatment of medical issues, some of which could have zoonotic implications if left unaddressed.

Diagnosing Zoonotic Infections

To diagnose if a person has contracted a zoonotic disease from a cat, the doctor will start with a detailed patient history and ask questions such as:

  • Do you own a cat or have exposure to cats?
  • Have you been bitten or scratched by a cat recently?
  • Do you clean the litter box yourself?
  • Have you noticed any fleas, ticks, or worms on your cat?

If the patient history indicates potential exposure, the doctor may order blood tests looking for antibodies or antigens related to diseases like toxoplasmosis, cat scratch disease or plague. Microscopic examination of blood, tissue or stool samples can also reveal the presence of parasitic organisms like Toxoplasma gondii.

A positive test along with supporting clinical symptoms and exposure history allows the doctor to make a definitive diagnosis of a zoonotic disease acquired from a cat.

Treating Zoonotic Diseases

Zoonotic diseases acquired from cats often require medication to treat the infection and alleviate symptoms. Common medications include:

  • Antibiotics like doxycycline to treat bacterial infections such as campylobacteriosis or cat scratch fever (1).
  • Antifungals like fluconazole to treat fungal infections like ringworm or sporotrichosis (2).
  • Antivirals like valacyclovir to treat viral infections like herpes B virus or cowpox (3).

In addition to medication, it is important to practice good hygiene and sanitation when caring for an infected cat. Wear gloves when cleaning litter boxes and wash hands thoroughly afterwards. Disinfect any surfaces the cat has contacted. Wash bedding and toys regularly (4).

It may also be necessary to isolate infected cats from other pets and people until they are no longer contagious. Keep sick cats confined to one room and avoid close contact. Consult your veterinarian for guidance on isolation protocols (5).

With proper treatment and precautions, most zoonotic diseases can be cured or controlled. However, some may require long-term management. Always follow your doctor’s recommendations for medication and hygiene when caring for a cat with a contagious illness.



Prevention Tips

There are several key ways cat owners can help prevent contracting a zoonotic disease from their feline companions:

Vaccinate Cats

One of the most important prevention measures is to keep cats up-to-date on their vaccinations. Core vaccines like rabies, feline distemper, and feline leukemia can help prevent many contagious illnesses. Discuss your cat’s vaccine schedule with your veterinarian.

Clean Litter Daily

Scooping your cat’s litter box at least once daily reduces the amount of potentially infectious material in the home environment. Properly disposing of soiled litter and thoroughly washing hands after cleaning can help prevent disease transmission.

Wash Hands Frequently

Handwashing is critical, especially before preparing food and after handling cats. Use soap and warm water and scrub for at least 20 seconds. Hand sanitizer can be used for convenience when soap and water are unavailable.

Control Rodents

Preventing exposure to rodents can reduce the risk of diseases like toxoplasmosis and plague. Keep trash contained, store food in sealed containers, and use humane traps if rodents enter the home. Discourage cats from hunting and do not feed them raw meat.


In summary, while cats can carry diseases that are contagious to humans, the risk of disease transmission is low for indoor cats who receive regular veterinary care. Some key takeaways include:

  • Cats can transmit diseases like ringworm, toxoplasmosis, and cat scratch disease to humans through bites and scratches or contact with feces.
  • Immunocompromised individuals, pregnant women, young children and the elderly face higher risks.
  • Preventive measures like washing hands after contact, proper litter box maintenance, keeping cats indoors, and regular vet visits greatly reduce risks.
  • Most zoonotic diseases from cats produce mild flu-like symptoms treatable with rest and medication.
  • Serious infections are rare but can cause blindness, birth defects or neurological problems if left untreated.

While the idea of contracting an illness from a beloved pet is alarming, responsible cat ownership and preventing opportunities for transmission provide effective protection. Overall, the joys of cat companionship far outweigh the small risks.

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