Should You Let Your Cat Lick You? The Surprising Truth About Cat Saliva

Introduction

Cats have been beloved pets in the United States for decades. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, over 42 million households own a cat. However, any pet owner knows that interacting with their furry friend comes with special care and risks. Cat owners in particular have to consider the impact of an inquisitive cat’s grooming, play bites, and other close contact on human health.

One specific consideration for cat owners is the cleanliness and potential risks of cat saliva. Cat saliva contains a mixture of proteins and bacteria that help cats groom and digest food. But can cat saliva also pose dangers to people?

Cats’ Oral Bacteria

Cats have many types of bacteria in their mouths, just like other animals. Some of the most common bacteria found in cat saliva include Pasteurella multocida, Bartonella henselae, and Capnocytophaga canimorsus (Doctor’s warning: a cat’s bacteria is worse than its bite, 2016). These bacteria are normal flora in cats’ mouths and usually do not cause illness in cats. However, they can be harmful to humans in some situations.

Pasteurella multocida is found in over 50% of healthy cats. According to Cornell University, Bartonella henselae is carried in the saliva of infected cats and can be transmitted through bites, scratches, or contact with saliva from infected cats (Zoonotic Disease: What Can I Catch from My Cat?, n.d.). The CDC states that Capnocytophaga canimorsus is commonly found in cat saliva and can on rare occasions infect humans after a bite or close contact with a cat (Capnocytophaga, 2020).

Diseases Cats Can Transmit

Cats can potentially transmit several diseases to humans through their saliva. The main illnesses that may spread through cat saliva are:

Bartonella henselae (cat scratch disease) – This bacteria causes an infection called cat scratch disease. It is transmitted to humans through bites and scratches from infected cats, where bacteria enter through breaks in the skin. The disease causes fever, headache, fatigue, and swollen lymph nodes near the injury site. https://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/pets/cats.html

Rabies – An infected cat can transmit the rabies virus to humans through its saliva from bites and scratches. Rabies attacks the nervous system and is fatal once symptoms appear. https://justcatsclinic.com/5-diseases-you-can-catch-from-your-cat/

Pasteurella – Cats may carry this respiratory bacteria in their mouths. It can be transmitted through bites and cause wound infections or respiratory illness in humans. Immunocompromised people are at higher risk.

Capnocytophaga – This common oral bacteria in cats can be transmitted through bites. It may cause fever, vomiting, diarrhea, and sepsis in humans if infection spreads to the blood.

Cleaning Cat Bites

It is crucial to properly clean a cat bite wound right away to help prevent infection. The first step is to wash the bite area thoroughly with soap and warm water for at least 5 minutes. Use an antibacterial soap if possible. Be sure to clean the wound and skin around it. This helps remove dirt, germs, and any remaining cat saliva from the bite site.

After washing, apply an antibiotic ointment such as Neosporin to the bite. Ointments with ingredients like polymyxin B, bacitracin, and neomycin help fight bacteria. Cover the wound with a sterile bandage or gauze. Keeping the bite covered protects it from further contamination.

The CDC recommends seeking medical care within 24 hours for any cat bite that breaks the skin [1]. Bite wounds can close quickly, which can seal in infection. Doctors may prescribe oral antibiotics as a preventative measure, especially if the bite is deep. Be sure to complete the full antibiotic course as prescribed.

Severe bites, especially to the face, hands, or joints, warrant an immediate ER visit. Watch for signs of infection like increasing pain, swelling, redness, warmth around the bite, red streaks, discharge, or fever.

[1] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Healthy Pets Healthy People: Cats. https://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/pets/cats.html

Risks to Humans

While the risk of disease transmission from cat saliva to healthy humans is generally low, certain populations may be more susceptible to infection. This includes young children, the elderly, pregnant women, and immunocompromised individuals (1). Bacteria such as Capnocytophaga can spread to humans through bites, scratches, or close contact with cats and potentially lead to sepsis in at-risk populations (2).

Compared to dogs, cats pose less risk of transmitting diseases through saliva. Bites from dogs are more likely to become infected and their saliva contains bacteria like Capnocytophaga canimorsus that can cause severe illness in humans (3). Overall, the chances of a healthy person acquiring a disease from a cat bite or scratch are quite small. But any open wounds caused by a cat should be thoroughly cleaned to avoid possible bacterial infection.

Citations:

(1) https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/zoonotic-disease-what-can-i-catch-my-cat

(2) https://www.cdc.gov/capnocytophaga/index.html

(3) https://www.healio.com/news/infectious-disease/20180816/qa-bacteria-in-dog-and-cat-saliva-can-makes-humans-sick

Safe Interactions

There are ways people can safely interact with their cats to reduce the risk of disease transmission (https://icatcare.org/handling-and-interactions/). Most importantly, be respectful of a cat’s personal space and avoid forced interactions. Let the cat approach you first before attempting to pet or hold it. Avoid direct eye contact or quickly reaching toward the cat, as this can seem threatening. Instead, get down to the cat’s level and offer the back of your hand for them to sniff before petting. Allow cats to explore on their own terms and provide positive reinforcement with treats and toys when they engage calmly. Limit interactions with cats that seem distressed, fearful, or overstimulated.

To further reduce disease risks, wash hands before and after handling cats and avoid letting them lick open wounds or the mouth and nose. Supervise young children with cats and teach them proper interaction techniques. Clean cat bites right away with soap and water. People with weakened immune systems should be especially careful and consider avoiding the cat’s litter box. Overall, approaching cat interactions with empathy, patience, and care can allow safe relationships for both people and pets (https://www.discovermagazine.com/the-sciences/8-dos-and-donts-for-communicating-with-your-cat).

Veterinary Perspective

Veterinarians emphasize the risks that cat saliva can pose to humans. Dr. Lorie Huston, a veterinarian, warns that “The saliva of cats and dogs contains numerous types of bacteria that can cause infection in bite wounds. Cat scratches are even more likely to cause infection than dog scratches because cats have small, sharp claws that can introduce bacteria deep into the skin” (Cornell Feline Health Center).

Specifically, vets caution about bacteria like Pasteurella, Capnocytophaga, and Bartonella that can be present in cat saliva and cause potentially serious infections if transmitted through bites or scratches. Dr. Jessica Vogelsang notes that “Cat bites are prone to infection. The feline mouth has a very high bacterial count, and up to 80 percent of cat bites can become infected if left untreated….Because of the deep tissue destruction a cat’s teeth can cause, antibiotics are frequently needed to keep cat bite infections under control” (PetMD).

To reduce risk, vets advise proper handwashing after handling cats, prompt disinfection of any bites/scratches, and seeking medical attention for bite wounds or signs of infection like swelling, redness, fever or pus. Responsible pet ownership and routine vet visits for cats are also recommended to monitor their health.

Home Disinfection

It is important to regularly disinfect surfaces in the home to kill any bacteria that may be present from cat saliva. The CDC recommends using diluted household bleach to disinfect surfaces. Make sure to allow the proper contact time for the bleach to work effectively against bacteria and viruses (at least 1 minute). Other disinfectants containing chlorine or alcohol can also be effective.

Any surfaces the cat has access to should be disinfected on a regular basis, such as countertops, floors, furniture, etc. It is recommended to disinfect high-touch surfaces daily or at least several times per week. When disinfecting, be sure to wash surfaces with soap first to remove dirt and oils before applying the disinfectant. Allow proper contact time before wiping the surface dry.

Proper hand hygiene is also essential after interacting with a cat. Wash hands thoroughly with soap and warm water after petting, holding, or cleaning up after a cat. Hand sanitizer can also be used if soap is unavailable.

Conclusion

In conclusion, cat saliva on its own is not inherently dangerous for humans, but any animal bite can pose a risk of infection. The bacteria found in cats’ mouths is relatively normal, though some types like Pasteurella can be harmful. However, simple precautions like washing a bite wound, using antibacterial soap, and seeing a doctor can prevent problems. While the risks are low for responsible pet owners, all animals can transmit diseases so it’s wise to be careful. The key is not to fear normal cat licks, but avoid deep bites and scratches. With proper care and hygiene, humans can safely interact with feline companions.

Cat lovers can find comfort knowing that saliva itself is not poisonous or toxic. Yet caution is still advised, especially with unknown animals. With some common sense, cat and human bonds need not be broken over health worries. A few precautions will allow enjoying a cat’s company while minimizing any infection risks.

References

This article was written using insight from veterinarians and research into cat health and bacteria. Sources consulted include:

  • ASPCA’s article “Cat Mouth Bacteria”
  • AVMA’s study “Bacteria isolated from the oral cavity of cats”
  • CDC report “Diseases from Cats”
  • VCA Hospitals’ article “Cat Bites”

Further reading recommendations:

  • International Cat Care’s “Cat Health”
  • UC Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program’s “Feline Zoonoses”
  • NIH study “Human infections through cat bites”
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