Owning a pet is one of life’s pleasures that is positively good for children and adults alike. Pet owners have a reduced risk of heart disease and may be less prone to other illnesses – on average they visit the doctor less. Stroking a cat helps with relaxation and stress and pets help children to learn caring and nurturing skills.
However, people are sometimes worried that they may pick up illnesses from pets. This does not happen very often, and the chances of catching an infection from a pet can be greatly reduced by taking a few simple measures. Teach children to wash their hands after handling animals, or after playing on ground where animals have been – adults should do the same. There are many different types of infections that may, under some circumstances, be caught from contact with pets. However, it is not common to catch illnesses from pets. Even among veterinary staff, back strain from lifting animals is a more common problem than catching disease.
Certain groups of people are more at risk. Those suffering from diseases that reduce immunity (such as AIDS), or those who are either receiving cancer chemotherapy or on drugs following transplantation surgery, need to be particularly careful to wash their hands or wear gloves after handling pets. They should also avoid aggressive play with cats and be wary of petting excitable or aggressive cats. If you are suffering from one of these conditions, seek specialist advice. If you are considering getting a cat, it may be better to get an adult, as kittens are more likely to be a source of infection.
Catching an illness from another human is much more likely than from a cat. Simply washing your hands and taking other routine hygiene measures avoids nearly all illnesses from pets. More importantly, prevention is better than cure, and you are less likely to pick up infection from a healthy cat. When you first get a cat, ask the vet for advice on how to keep your cat healthy and continue to take your pet regularly for check-ups.
Flea, tick, cat bites and people
These are the most common conditions that pet owners can catch from their cats. Fleas are not serious but they can cause itchy red spots, particularly around the wrists and ankles. Ask your vet to recommend a good flea product – shop bought products such as flea collars and powder are not effective. You need to treat both the cat and the environment to get rid of the eggs.
Cats occasionally acquire ticks and if you live in an area where ticks are common (usually areas with deer or sheep) you want to discuss the use of a tick repellent with your vet, who can also explain how to remove ticks. Tick bites are an occasional cause of illness in people (Lyme disease). You don't need to own a cat to get bitten, but you should consult your doctor if you become unwell after a tick bite.
Cat bites are potentially more serious as there is a risk of infection. Wash well and promptly with soap and water and consult your doctor for advice, particularly if the bite becomes swollen, infected or is on a joint. Also ensure that your tetanus protection is up to date. Avoid handling cats that are frightened or angry and, if you have to pick up an injured cat, remember that cats in pain may bite. Wrap the cat in a thick towel first and be careful.
Bites, as well as scratches, carry a risk of cat scratch fever. This is usually a mild illness with fever and swollen lymph glands, although it can be more severe in children and immuno-suppressed patients. It is caused by bartonella bacteria, which can be carried by some healthy cats.
Fleas probably transmit bartonella bacteria between cats, and infection may be more common in kittens. All cat bites and scratches should be well washed with soap and water and cats should not be allowed to lick open sores or wounds. Good flea control is advisable. For this and other reasons, it is best not to encourage rough play or play with hands.
If you own a cat that is sometimes aggressive, you may be able to learn to read the cat’s body signals to predict an attack. Look for tensing, twitching or lashing of the tail. There are many books available on cat behaviour and, if the problem is severe, your vet can recommend an animal behaviourist for advice.