A pet is not just an animal but also a member of the family that provides us with unconditional love and affection. Pets offer solace when we need to be comforted and companionship when we need a friend. Having a pet may be especially important for someone living with the problems associated with a disease that compromises the immune system, such as HIV/AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis, or even allergies.
Of special concern to cat owners with compromised immune systems are zoonotic diseases (diseases communicable from animals to humans under natural conditions). For example, an organism that may not cause clinical illness in a healthy person may be devastating to someone whose immune system is compromised. As a result, many immune-suppressed cat owners question whether they should keep their animal companions.
Direct contact with cats is usually not a great risk if appropriate preventative measures are taken, says Michael Lappin, DVM, professor of small animal internal medicine at the Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and co-chair of the American Association of Feline Practitioners/Academy of Feline Medicine Advisory Panel on Zoonotic Diseases.
Although many organisms are shared between animals and man, infection by a zoonotic agent typically comes from the same environmental source (like fleas or ticks) that caused your cat to become infected rather than you becoming infected by your cat.
There are several intestinal infections of cats that also infect people, says Lappin. Toxoplasma gondii, Giardia, Cryptosporidium, roundworms, and hookworms are common examples. These organisms survive in the environment for long periods of time (usually months), and any contact with infected feces can result in infection. However, since most cats clean themselves regularly, says Lappin, the organisms are usually not on the cats body but are usually concentrated in areas containing fecal matter, like the litter box, your garden, and your childs sandbox.
Some agents like Toxoplasma gondii are also acquired by ingestion of undercooked meat, says Lappin. At risk people should cook their meat to medium well, and cats should not be allowed to hunt or be fed undercooked meats.
Taking extra precautions
Living with a companion cat is usually not an excessive risk if you suffer an immune system disorder providing you maintain a clean environment and practice good hygiene. While there are many zoonotic organisms, most are avoidable, and it is rare to become infected from touching your cat, says Lappin. A healthy cat without fleas or diarrhea is generally very safe.
If you have an immune system disorder, take extra precautions when it comes to cleaning up after your cat, specifically, and cleaning up your environment, in general. Since cat scratch disease is associated with fleas, says Lappin, keeping your cat and home flea free will help prevent infection. Additionally, clean the litter box daily, wash produce carefully, and wash your hands after gardening.
If your cat is sick or has fleas, see your veterinarian for care and advice, says Lappin.