Is Kitty Licking Safe? The Surprising Truth About Feline Saliva

Introduction

Cats often show affection for their owners by licking them. While this behavior may seem harmless, there are potential health risks associated with being licked by cats that owners should be aware of. This article provides an overview of the benefits and risks of being licked by cats. It explores the bacteria, infections, and parasites that can be transmitted through cat saliva, and precautions owners should take, especially if they are immunocompromised. The goal is to inform cat owners about the potential risks, so they can make educated decisions about interacting with their feline companions.

Benefits of Being Licked by Cats

Cats licking their owners can be beneficial in a few ways. One of the main benefits is social bonding and affection. When a cat licks a human, it is showing a social attachment and trust. Licking releases endorphins in cats and can be a soothing and relaxing activity for them [1]. By allowing licks, owners strengthen their bond with their cat.

Grooming is another benefit of cat licks. Cats spend up to 50% of their waking hours self-grooming and also groom other cats they have social bonds with [2]. When a cat licks its owner, it is exhibiting a natural grooming instinct and showing care. Gentle licks can be soothing and clean salt and oils from human skin.

Potential Risks of Cat Licks

While the majority of cat licks are harmless, there are some potential risks cat owners should be aware of. These include:

Bacteria in Cat Saliva

Cats have a number of bacteria that are normal inhabitants of their mouths, including Pasteurella multocida, Capnocytophaga canimorsus, and others (PetHelpful). These bacteria usually don’t cause problems for the cat but can be transmitted to people through bites or scratches. Licking can also transfer small amounts of saliva and potentially infect an open wound or compromised immune system.

According to PetMD, Pasteurella multocida in cat saliva can lead to skin infections if the cat has an abscess or infected gums. C. canimorsus can cause serious blood or tissue infections in rare cases.

Infections

If cat saliva enters an open wound, it can potentially cause a local infection or abscess at the site (Cornell Feline Health Center). This is more likely if the wound is deep rather than just a minor scratch.

Immunocompromised individuals are at higher risk of developing an infection from a cat lick. This includes people on immunosuppressant medications, chemotherapy, HIV/AIDS, or with chronic conditions that weaken the immune system.

Parasites

Some parasites like Toxoplasma gondii can be transmitted through cat feces and potentially saliva. The risk from licking alone is very low, but immunocompromised individuals should take care (PetMD).

Bacteria in Cat Saliva

Cat saliva contains a number of bacteria that can be harmful to humans. One of the most common is Pasteurella multocida, which is found in over 50% of healthy cats according to one study (Snipes & Taylor, 2009). Pasteurella multocida can cause skin infections, abscesses, and sepsis if transmitted to humans through a bite or scratch.

Another bacterium found in cat saliva is Bartonella henselae, the cause of cat scratch disease. Studies indicate B. henselae infection rates in cats range from 3-64% depending on geographic location (Chomel et al, 2006). Cat scratch disease often causes swollen lymph nodes and fever after a cat scratch or bite.

Other bacteria that may be present in cat saliva at lower frequencies include Staphylococcus, Streptococcus, Clostridium, Neisseria, Corynebacterium, and Campylobacter species (Tatara et al, 2008). These can cause various skin and tissue infections if introduced into a wound from a cat’s mouth.

Infections

Cat saliva can contain bacteria that cause several types of infections in humans. The main types of infections to be aware of are:

Skin infections: Cat bites or scratches can introduce bacteria into the wound, causing infections of the skin and tissue around the bite/scratch. Common bacteria involved are Pasteurella multocida and Staphylococcus species, which can cause painful swelling, redness, and pus (1).

Systemic infections: In some cases, bacteria from cat saliva can enter the bloodstream and cause more serious systemic infections affecting the whole body. Examples include cat scratch disease, plague, and rabies (1). Cat scratch disease causes fever, headache, and lymph node swelling. Plague also causes fever and swollen lymph nodes but can progress to pneumonia if left untreated (2).

Specific examples of infections from cat saliva include cat scratch fever (bartonellosis), staphylococcal infection, and streptococcal infection. Immuno-compromised individuals are more susceptible (1).

(1) https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/cat-scratch-disease

(2) https://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/diseases/cat-scratch.html

Parasites

Cat saliva may contain parasites that can infect humans if they enter the body. The most common and concerning parasite from cats is Toxoplasma gondii, the parasite responsible for toxoplasmosis. According to the CDC, over 40 million people in the U.S. may be infected with toxoplasmosis. However, most people infected show no symptoms because their immune systems keep the parasite in check.

Cats get infected with T. gondii by eating infected rodents, birds or other small animals, or anything contaminated with feces from another infected cat (1). The parasite reproduces in the cat’s intestine and is shed in the feces for up to 3 weeks afterwards. The parasites become infectious 1-5 days after being shed. Human infection typically occurs through ingesting the parasites; this can happen through consuming contaminated food/water or accidental ingestion of cat feces (2).

If a person’s immune system cannot keep T. gondii in check, toxoplasmosis infection can cause flu-like symptoms, blurry vision, and in severe cases encephalitis or brain/eye damage. It can also be dangerous to the fetus if a pregnant woman first becomes infected during pregnancy. Thankfully, toxoplasmosis is not common in indoor-only cats that eat commercial cat food, which is unlikely to contain the parasite (1).

Other parasites that may rarely be transmitted through cat saliva include Cryptosporidium, Giardia, Hookworms, and Ringworm, though these are more likely to be transmitted through cat feces. Good hygiene around cats can minimize risk of transmission (3).

Sources:

(1) https://www.cdc.gov/parasites/toxoplasmosis/toxoplasmosis_catowners.html

(2) https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/toxoplasmosis/symptoms-causes/syc-20356249

(3) 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

Precautions for Cat Owners

While the risks of disease transmission from a cat’s lick are generally low, there are some precautions cat owners should take. The most important is proper handwashing after interacting with cats, especially before eating or touching your face. Cats groom themselves frequently and their mouths can harbor bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Thoroughly washing your hands with soap and water after petting or playing with cats can help prevent the spread of any pathogens (1).

It is also wise to try to discourage cats from licking open wounds or broken skin. While the antibacterial proteins in their saliva can sometimes aid healing, their mouths still harbor bacteria that can cause infection. Gently limiting a cat’s access to wounds with bandages or cones is recommended, and wounds should be monitored for signs of infection like redness, swelling, discharge, or odor (2). Consulting a veterinarian for care of significant wounds on cats or humans can help decrease risks.

Citations:

(1) https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/cats-lick-too-much

(2) https://cats.com/how-to-stop-a-cat-from-licking-their-wounds

Risks for Immunocompromised

People with weakened immune systems, such as those with HIV/AIDS, cancer, or who have had an organ transplant, are at higher risk of getting sick from cat saliva (1). Cat saliva carries bacteria like Bartonella that can cause serious illnesses in immunocompromised individuals (2). Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite found in cat feces, can also lead to toxoplasmosis which can have severe effects (1).

Immunocompromised individuals should take extra precautions around cats such as avoiding a cat licking open wounds, and washing hands thoroughly after contact. Wearing gloves when changing litter boxes is also recommended. While the risk is present, taking proper precautions allows immunocompromised cat owners to safely keep their pets in most cases (1). Those who are severely immunocompromised may want to reconsider having a cat until their immune system recovers.

When to See a Doctor

If you develop symptoms of an infection after being scratched or licked by a cat, it’s important to see your doctor. Signs of infection include:

– Redness, swelling, warmth, or pus at the scratch or bite site (cite: https://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/diseases/cat-scratch.html)

– Flu-like symptoms such as fever, headache, fatigue, or joint pain (cite: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/cat-scratch-disease)

– Poor appetite or weight loss

– Swollen lymph nodes near the infected area

These could be signs of a bacterial infection like cat scratch disease or bartonellosis. It’s important to get medical attention to determine the cause and get appropriate treatment with antibiotics if needed.

Conclusion

In summary, while there are some risks associated with being licked by cats, it is generally safe for healthy individuals as long as proper precautions are taken. The main risks come from bacteria, infections, and parasites that may be present in a cat’s saliva. However, the chances of becoming seriously ill are low, especially if you practice good hygiene and proper handwashing after interacting with cats.

For immunocompromised individuals, pregnant women, young children, and the elderly, caution is warranted, and avoiding a cat’s lick is recommended. Seek medical attention if any signs of infection develop after being licked. Overall though, do not be alarmed if your feline friend gives you an affectionate lick, as this is normal cat behavior and generally safe in moderation.

To stay healthy around cats, be sure to keep their vaccines and parasite treatments up to date, maintain their dental hygiene, wash hands after contact, and keep any wounds clean and monitored for infection. While a lick here and there is fine, discourage excessive licking behavior or licking of open wounds or invasive licking around the mouth and nose. If you take proper precautions, both you and your cat can safely enjoy affectionate licking within reason.

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