Zoonotic Diseases in Cats

By Krista Williams, BSc, DVM; Ernest Ward, DVM

What is a zoonotic disease?

Zoonotic disease or zoonoses are terms used to describe an infection or disease that can be transmitted from an animal to a human being.

Are there many zoonoses?

Altogether, well over one hundred diseases are capable of being transmitted from animals to humans, although most are rare in North America. All domestic animals including dogs, cats, birds, horses, cows, sheep, goats, and rabbits can potentially spread diseases to people, but rarely does this actually occur. If pet owners exercise basic hygiene principles, especially hand washing, most of these potential diseases can be avoided.

Am I at risk for contracting a zoonotic disease from my cat?

Current evidence supports the fact that pet cats pose a minimal zoonotic risk to their human companions. Cats kept indoors are exposed to fewer diseases that can be transmitted to humans. Risk may be slightly higher in people with a compromised immune system from disease or medications, such as:

  • people with AIDS/HIV.
  • people on chemotherapy or receiving radiation therapy.
  • people who are elderly or have chronic diseases.
  • people born with congenital immune deficiencies.
  • people who have received organ or bone marrow transplants.
  • pregnant women (the fetal immune system is not fully developed, and the pregnant woman's immune system is altered during pregnancy).
"If you fall into one of these categories, it does not mean you have to give up your pet."

If you fall into one of these categories, it does not mean you have to give up your pet. It simply means that you should take some basic precautions such monitoring your cat for any signs of illness, washing your hands after extensive handling of your cat, and avoiding direct contact with your cat's feces.

It is important to keep in mind that numerous studies prove that the benefits of having a pet far outweigh the risks. Sharing your home with a pet is often just what your doctor ordered.

What are the most common zoonotic diseases of cats?

  • ringworm
  • toxoplasmosis
  • salmonellosis
  • campylobacter infection
  • Giardia infection
  • cryptosporidium infection
  • roundworms
  • hookworms
  • cat scratch disease
  • rabies


What can I do to reduce the risk of contracting a disease from my cat?

Proper litter box cleaning is the most effective way to reduce the risk of contracting a disease from your cat. Here are simple guidelines you should follow if you fall into a risk category:

  • Place your litter box away from the kitchen and other areas where you prepare or store food.
  • If possible, have someone who is not at risk clean the litter Otherwise, clean the litter box daily, since the organism that causes toxoplasmosis takes at least twenty-four hours to become infectious.
  • Use disposable litter box liners and change them each time you clean the litter box.
  • Do not dump the litter. If you dump litter, you could potentially aerosolize an infectious agent and inhale it. Be sure to slowly pour the litter or simply twist and close the litter box liner.
  • Clean the litter box at least twice a month with hot water, letting the hot water stand in the box for at least five minutes. This simple cleaning technique will kill the Toxoplasma organism.
  • Wear disposable gloves and discard them after each use. Thoroughly wash your hands after cleaning the litter box.

In addition to toxoplasmosis, is there anything else I can get from my cat's feces?

Cats can occasionally be the source for intestinal ailments including some bacterial infections caused by Salmonella and Campylobacter, as well intestinal parasites such as Giardia, Cryptosporidium, hookworms, and roundworms. These diseases can be spread to people by direct contact with the feces of an infected cat or by contact with soil that has been contaminated by the feces of an infected cat.

Many other animals also carry these infections. Salmonella and Campylobacter are most often spread through undercooked meat or improperly prepared food.


How do I know if my cat has a zoonotic disease?

Cats that are carrying one of these infections will sometimes, but not always, have loose stools or diarrhea. All newly acquired cats are at a higher risk and should have their feces tested by your veterinarian as soon as possible.

What will happen if I get one of these diseases?

This group of bacterial and parasitic infections will usually only produce temporary symptoms in someone with a healthy immune system. For people who are immunocompromised however, some of these infections can be life-threatening. Ringworm can be a stubborn infection, but is curable with persistent treatment.

How can I prevent my cat from getting bacterial infections and intestinal parasites? 

Preventing these diseases is easier than you think. Some simple guidelines to keep your cat healthy are:

  • Feed your cat a high-quality commercial cat food.
  • If you must feed your cat meat, poultry, or eggs, cook them well.
  • Wash hands thoroughly after handling raw meat.
  • Keep your cat indoors and prevent it from hunting.
  • Keep your cat away from other cats and have any new cats examined by your veterinarian before exposing them to existing cats.
  • If your cat does go outdoors, use a broad-spectrum deworming product on a regular basis, as recommended by your veterinarian.

Can I get HIV or AIDS from my cat?

No, numerous studies prove that you cannot contract HIV/AIDS from your cat. Both feline leukemia virus (FeLV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) are contagious between cats, but neither of them can infect humans, nor can the human virus infect cats.

However, FeLV and FIV suppress the cat's immune system, making him or her more susceptible to zoonotic infections, which could then be passed on to you. If you are immunocompromised, it may not be healthy to keep a cat infected with FeLV or FIV. If you do keep a cat with one of these diseases, be extra cautious and carefully follow general hygiene and litter box guidelines. To minimize the risks of contracting FeLV or FIV, keep your cat indoors. If your cat goes outdoors, have her tested and examined at least once a year by your veterinarian.

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