Ask Dr. Richards: 09/03

Question: Ive lived with cats all my life and Ive always been healthy. Recently, Ive become more concerned about diseases cats can transmit to people, especially now that I have children. The last straw was something I read about SARS and a researcher who said civet cats might be a source of infection. Should I be concerned?

Answer: The Internet is a wondrous invention. The amount of information obtainable simply boggles my mind. Theres a real downside though: Incomplete, inaccurate, or misleading information can spread unchecked. Consider the recent case of mistaken identity. Earlier this year, a microbiologist from Hong Kong reportedly found a virus that causes SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) in people in a civet cat, a small wild carnivore considered to be a delicacy in southern China. Other researchers subsequently challenged his contention, but shortly after the initial report, headlines like Cats can get SARS and SARS from Cats to Humans sprung up on the internet and newspapers. This caused quite a stir, but theres one glaring flaw: Civets arent even cats. They belong to the family Viverridae and are related to mongooses. Domestic cats are Felidae, a family that includes lions, tigers, and jaguars.

Researchers have reported that at least some of the coronaviruses that cause SARS can briefly infect domestic cats without causing disease – but they were quick to add that the likelihood of cats spreading infection to people is very remote. At the time of this writing, the only animals known to transmit infection are other humans. Cats are commonly infected with their very own kinds of coronaviruses, as are dogs, pigs, and many other animals. The cat disease feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) is caused by a feline coronavirus infection. Although FIP and SARS are completely different diseases in their respective hosts, some scientists hope that by studying FIP in cats, they can learn more about SARS in people.

Much remains to be learned about SARS, but theres no evidence whatsoever that it spreads from cats to people. But – rarely – cats may play a role in transmission of some other diseases to people: Cat-scratch disease, toxoplasmosis, and rabies are the major examples. But a little basic hygiene and common sense can markedly reduce the risk of catching any cat-borne infection. The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) will soon release guidelines to help cat owners avoid catching anything from their cats. Following are the major points adapted from their upcoming publication:

Vaccinate all cats for rabies.

Wash hands after handling cats (especially before eating).

Remove fecal material from the litter box daily.

Use litterbox liners (if acceptable to the cats) and periodically clean the box with scalding water and detergent.

Cover childrens sandboxes to lessen fecal contamination by outdoor cats.

Seek immediate veterinary care for unhealthy cats.

Schedule regular veterinary appointments for physical examination, fecal examination, deworming recommendations, and vaccine needs assessment.

Pregnant women or immunocompromised people should not clean the litterbox. If unavoidable, the person should clean the box daily while wearing gloves, and wash hands well when finished.

Avoid being bitten or scratched (dont allow anyone to tease or play roughly with your cat).

Consider behavior modification for cats prone to biting or scratching.

If bitten or scratched, seek medical attention.

Seek veterinary advice for flea and tick control.

Keep cats indoors to reduce exposure to other animals, excrement, and fleas and ticks.

Keep claws clipped or capped to lessen the risk of skin penetration.

Avoid being licked on the face by your cat.

Do not share food utensils with your cat.

Do not allow cats to drink from the toilet.

Do not handle cats with which you are unfamiliar.

Avoid handling unhealthy cats, particularly those with gastrointestinal, respiratory, skin, neurological, or reproductive disease.  If unavoidable, wear gloves and wash hands thoroughly afterwards.

Feed only cooked or commercially processed cat food.

Really, most of it boils down to things your mother probably taught you. So use your head and just enjoy your cats and kids.