Can Cuddling Your Cat Make Them Sick? How to Avoid Passing Illness to Your Feline Friend


The COVID-19 pandemic caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus has raised concerns about the possibility of household pets like cats and dogs contracting the virus from infected owners. While the risk is generally low, especially of pets spreading the virus to humans, understanding whether viral transmission can occur and what precautions to take is important for pet owners. This topic has significance for public health, ensuring the wellbeing of pets, and maintaining the human-animal bond during difficult times.

Types of Viral Infections Humans Can Pass to Cats

There are several types of viral infections that can be transmitted between humans and cats:

Upper Respiratory Infections

Cats can catch upper respiratory viral infections like the common cold, influenza, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) from humans. According to the CDC, influenza viruses are one of the most common respiratory viruses transmitted between cats and humans (CDC). Cats infected with human flu viruses may develop mild upper respiratory symptoms like sneezing, nasal discharge, and coughing.

Gastrointestinal Infections

Gastrointestinal viruses can also spread between people and cats. For example, human norovirus and rotavirus have been shown to infect cats (Cornell). Infected cats may have diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal pain.

Other Viral Diseases

According to the CDC, cats can rarely get infected with other human viruses like herpes simplex virus 1, varicella-zoster virus (which causes chickenpox), measles virus, and papillomaviruses (CDC). However, transmission of these viruses from humans to cats is quite uncommon.

How Transmission Occurs

There are a few different ways cats can contract viral infections from humans:

Direct Contact

Some viruses like influenza and herpes simplex can be passed through direct contact between a human and a cat. This includes petting, holding, kissing, and other close interactions where respiratory droplets or saliva may be exchanged. For example, if a human with an active cold sore kisses their cat, the cat could become infected with herpes simplex. [1]


Viruses that are spread through the air, like influenza or the common cold, can be transmitted from humans to cats through sneezing, coughing, or even just breathing and talking. If an infected human is near their cat, respiratory droplets containing the virus can land on the cat’s nose and mouth or be inhaled, leading to infection. Maintaining distance from cats when sick can help reduce airborne transmission risk. [2]


Some viruses can live on surfaces, known as fomites, for a period of time. If a human touches a contaminated surface then pets or handles their cat, they may transfer viruses like feline coronavirus or calicivirus to the cat’s fur or paws, leading to infection if the cat then grooms itself. Washing hands before interacting with cats and disinfecting surfaces can help prevent fomite transmission.[3]

Preventing Transmission

There are several steps you can take to reduce the risk of transmitting a viral infection to your cat:

Handwashing is crucial. Always wash your hands with soap and water before and after interacting with your cat, cleaning the litter box, or touching any of your cat’s items. Avoid coughing or sneezing directly on your cat as well (Stull, 2015).

When you are sick, avoid kissing, hugging, snuggling, and sharing food with your cat. Cough and sneeze into a tissue or your elbow rather than your hand when your cat is nearby (Expert Shares Tips, 2021).

Regularly sanitize your home using disinfectants safe for pets. Focus on high traffic areas and items your cat frequents like food bowls, beds, and toys. This helps remove germs that could be transferred between you and your cat.

Signs of Illness in Cats

Cats infected with a virus from their human owners may begin to exhibit several symptoms indicating illness. Some common signs to look out for include:

Sneezing, runny nose – Upper respiratory infections caused by viruses often lead to nasal discharge and sneezing as the most obvious symptoms. Cats may have watery eyes and congestion. According to VCA Hospitals, nasal and ocular discharge are hallmarks of upper respiratory infections in cats.1

Vomiting, diarrhea – Gastrointestinal issues like vomiting and diarrhea can arise from viral infections. The gastrointestinal tract can be impacted by viral replication. Petcarerx notes vomiting is a potential sign of a viral illness in cats.2

Lethargy, appetite loss – Sick cats often become lethargic and lose their appetite. The malaise associated with fighting off a viral infection causes diminished energy. Lack of appetite may also be tied to altered sense of smell from upper respiratory infection.

Treating a Sick Cat

If your cat develops an upper respiratory infection after being exposed to a human virus, the main treatments will focus on supportive veterinary care to help your cat recover. This includes:

  • Encouraging eating and drinking to maintain strength and hydration
  • Clearing nasal discharge to ease breathing difficulties
  • Providing a warm, calm environment for rest

Antiviral medications may be prescribed in some cases to help fight the infection. Examples include famciclovir or interferon alpha.

It’s also important to quarantine the sick cat from other household pets during recovery, to prevent spreading the infection further. Your vet can advise on quarantine length based on the type of virus.

With supportive care and time for the cat’s immune system to work, upper respiratory viral infections generally resolve on their own. However, prompt veterinary attention is still important, to keep your cat as comfortable as possible and identify any complications requiring additional treatment.

Risk Factors for Severe Illness

Certain cats are more likely to develop severe illness from viral infections contracted from humans. Risk factors include:

Age – Kittens and senior cats have weaker immune systems, making them more vulnerable to complications from respiratory infections (Cornell 2022). Their small airways are also more prone to inflammation and obstruction.

Other health conditions – Cats with chronic illnesses like kidney disease, diabetes, or cancer are immunocompromised and cannot fight off infection as easily (VCA Hospitals 2022).

Vaccination status – While core vaccines do not cover every respiratory virus, they help strengthen the immune response. Unvaccinated cats are more susceptible to complications from upper respiratory infections (Sykes 2015).


The prognosis for a cat with a viral infection depends on the specific virus involved. Many viral infections in cats are self-limiting, meaning the cat’s immune system will eventually clear the virus on its own without treatment. However, secondary bacterial infections are a major concern and can complicate the prognosis.

Feline herpesvirus and calicivirus infections generally resolve within 2-4 weeks, though the cat may continue to carry and shed the virus intermittently lifelong. With supportive care and antibiotics if needed for secondary infections, most cats recover fully. Fatal cases are rare unless the cat has other concurrent illnesses.

Feline leukemia virus and feline immunodeficiency virus infections cannot be cured, but cats can live normal lifespans if properly managed. Cats with weakened immune systems from these retroviruses are prone to more severe illnesses from other infections.

According to one study, panleukopenia virus is fatal in up to 90% of infected cats without treatment, but the prognosis is good if treated early and aggressively before severe bone marrow suppression occurs (1). Mortality remains around 20% even with treatment.

Overall, the prognosis depends on the specific virus, the cat’s immune status, how quickly treatment is started, and the presence of any secondary infections. Consulting a veterinarian is important for assessing prognosis and initiating supportive care to promote recovery.

When to See the Vet

There are certain signs that indicate your cat’s condition may be worsening and require veterinary attention. These include:

Difficulty breathing – Labored breathing, wheezing, or open-mouth breathing could signal pneumonia or severe inflammation, requiring antibiotics or other medication.

Not drinking/eating – Dehydration and malnutrition can occur if your cat stops drinking and eating for more than 24 hours. Fluid therapy, appetite stimulants, or feeding tubes may be needed.

Lethargy lasting over 24 hrs – Excessive lethargy or weakness for over a day could mean your cat is severely ill and needs supportive care. Monitoring of vital signs and bloodwork may be necessary.

In addition to the above emergency signs, contact your vet if: the illness lasts more than 2 weeks, your cat’s condition seems to worsen, or other concerning symptoms develop. Prompt veterinary care can help prevent complications and suffering.


In summary, while human-to-cat transmission of viruses is possible, the risk is relatively low for most household cats. Respiratory viruses like colds, flu and COVID-19 can spread through close contact with an infected person. Intestinal viruses like norovirus are also transmittable through contact with bodily fluids or contaminated surfaces. To reduce risk, maintain good hygiene, avoid close contact when ill, and keep litterboxes clean. Monitor your cat for any signs of illness like sneezing, coughing, diarrhea or lethargy. Seek prompt veterinary care if you suspect your cat may have a virus, as early treatment can help prevent severe illness. Prevention is key, but with proper care, most cats recover well from viral infections contracted from humans.

Stopping inter-species transmission protects both human and feline health. Simple precautions allow us to safely share our homes with our furry companions.

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