Research has shown that cats can provide emotional support, improve moods, and contribute to the overall morale of their owners. Cats are also credited with promoting socialization among older individuals and physically or mentally disabled people. Nearly 40 million households in the United States have pet cats.
Although cats are great companions, cat owners should be aware that sometimes cats can carry harmful germs that can cause a variety of illnesses in people, ranging from minor skin infections to serious illnesses. One of the best ways you can protect yourself from getting sick is to thoroughly wash your hands after handling, cleaning up after, or feeding cats.
By providing your cat with routine veterinary care and following the Healthy People tips, you are less likely to get sick from touching, petting, or owning a cat.
Read below to learn about diseases that can be spread by cats and visit the Healthy People section to learn about staying healthy around pet cats.
Campylobacter are bacteria that can make people and animals sick with a disease called campylobacteriosis.
How it spreads: People get Campylobacter infection by coming into contact with feces (poop) of infected animals, including cats, or by consuming contaminated food or water. Typically, Campylobacter is spread when people don’t wash their hands after touching animals or their food, poop, toys, or beds, but it can also sometimes infect you through an open wound. Cats commonly become infected by eating contaminated raw meat and shed the bacteria in their poop.
Who is at risk: Anyone can get a Campylobacter infection, but children younger than 5 years of age, adults over 65 years of age, and people with weakened immune systems are more at risk for serious illness.
Signs in cats: Cats may appear healthy and show no signs of Campylobacter infection or they can have diarrhea that may be bloody.
Symptoms in people: People can have diarrhea (often bloody), fever, and stomach cramps. The diarrhea may be accompanied by nausea and vomiting. Symptoms usually start within 2–5 days after infection and last about 1 week.
Cat scratch disease (CSD) is an infection caused by the bacteria Bartonella henselae, and less commonly other Bartonella species.
How it spreads: Cats become infected through flea bites, fights with other infected cats, or blood transfusions. People can be exposed to the bacteria through the scratch or lick of an infected cat.
Who is at risk: Young cats (less than 1 year of age), strays or cats living in shelters, cats with current or previous flea infestation, and cats that hunt are most likely to have the bacteria. Any person can get sick from CSD, but illness is most common in children and adolescents under 15 years of age and people with weakened immune systems.
Signs in pets: About one third to half of cats have been exposed to the bacteria at some point in their lifetime. Although most infected cats do not appear sick, some cats may experience mild illness with fever that lasts for approximately 2-3 days. Rarely, the disease can cause more serious signs in cats, including vomiting, red eyes, swollen lymph nodes, tiredness, and/or low appetite. Bartonella infection in dogs is less common, but more likely to cause illness, compared to cats.
Signs in people: The CSD bacteria may cause a mild infection with a small, raised, solid bump at the site of the scratch and lymph node swelling near the site of the scratch. This occurs 1-3 weeks after exposure (for example, a cat scratch or lick). The infection can also cause fever, and less commonly eye infection, muscle pain, or more severe symptoms.
The cat tapeworm is a parasite spread to dogs, cats, and people through the ingestion of infected fleas. This parasite is common in cats but rarely causes illness in pets or people.
How it spreads: The tapeworm is spread when a cat or person swallows an infected flea. Cats may swallow fleas when self-grooming. Treating pets for fleas can help prevent infection.
Who is at risk: The risk of a person getting this tapeworm is extremely low because you must swallow a flea to become infected. Most cases occur in children.
Signs in dogs: Tapeworms are usually not harmful for cats and usually don’t cause illness. The parasite can sometimes be detected by finding rice-like segments of the tapeworm crawling near the anus or in fresh feces (poop). If a dog is heavily infected, it may lose weight.
Symptoms in people: Dipylidium infection is rare in people and usually doesn’t cause any symptoms. Sometimes the infection can be detected by finding rice-like segments of the tapeworm crawling near the anus or in fresh poop.
Cryptosporidiosis is a parasitic disease caused by the germ Cryptosporidium (or Crypto for short), which is spread by accidentally swallowing poop from an infected person or animal.
How it spreads: Crypto spreads through swallowing poop containing the germ after contact with an infected person or animal, or through poop in contaminated food or water. For example, people can get Crypto after swallowing recreational water, drinking untreated water from a lake or river, or touching their mouth after handling an infected animal.
Who is at risk: Anyone can been infected with Crypto, but people with weakened immune systems are more at risk, especially for severe disease.
Signs in cats: Crypto in cats is rare, but sometimes cats can carry the parasite without showing any signs of illness.
Symptoms in people: Symptoms include profuse, watery diarrhea with cramping, abdominal pain, vomiting, and nausea. The symptoms typically resolve within 1–2 weeks.
Giardia is a parasite that can be found on surfaces or in water, food, or soil that has been contaminated by poop from an infected person or animal.
How it spreads: Giardia spreads through swallowing microscopic poop containing the parasite following contact with an infected person or animal or by drinking water or eating food that has been contaminated with poop from infected people or animals.
Who is at risk: The risk of getting Giardia from cats is small. The exact type of Giardia that makes people sick is usually not the same that infects cats. Anyone can get Giardia, but the following groups have a higher risk:
- International travelers
- People who have contact with children in diapers
- People who have contact with poop during sexual contact with someone who is infected with Giardia
- People who drink untreated water from a river, lake, stream, or spring
- People who swim in natural bodies of water
Signs in cats: Cats with Giardia may have diarrhea, greasy stools, or become dehydrated.
Symptoms in people: People with Giardia may experience diarrhea, gas, abdominal discomfort, nausea, and vomiting. However, it is possible to be infected and have no signs of illness.
Hookworms are tiny worms that can spread through contact with contaminated soil or sand.
How it spreads: People can get hookworm infection by walking barefoot, kneeling, or sitting on ground that is contaminated with poop from infected animals. Cats can be infected by ingesting the parasite from the environment or through their mother’s milk or colostrum.
Who is at risk: Anyone can get hookworm infection.
Signs in cats: In kittens, hookworm can cause anemia and weight loss, and severe infections can be fatal.
Symptoms in people: People with hookworm infection can experience an itchy reaction and a red squiggly line may appear where the parasite larvae migrated under the skin. Unlike human hookworms, animal hookworms don’t survive in an infected person, so symptoms typically resolve within 4-6 weeks without medical treatment.
Staphylococcus aureus is a common type of a bacteria normally found on the skin of people and animals. MRSA is Staphylococcus aureus bacteria that have become resistant to some antibiotics. MRSA can cause a variety of infections, including skin infections, pneumonia (lung infection), and other problems.
How it spreads: MRSA can spread between people and animals through direct contact (touching). Even cats that aren’t sick can carry MRSA and spread it to people.
Who is at risk: Anyone can get a MRSA infection.
Signs in cats: Cats often don’t show signs of MRSA infection, but they can experience skin, respiratory, and urinary tract infections.
Symptoms in people: Most people with MRSA will carry it without showing any symptoms. For people who develop a MRSA infection, the most common type is a skin infection. If left untreated, MRSA can rarely spread to the lungs or bloodstream and become life-threatening.
Plague is caused by Yersinia pestis, bacteria that can cause illness in people and animals. In the western United States, fleas can pass the bacteria to rodents and other small animals. People and pets (dogs, cats) are at risk when they are bitten by infected fleas. Dogs and cats can get sick with plague and also spread the infection to humans.
How it spreads: People and animals are most commonly infected by flea bites, but touching plague-infected animals can also cause illness. People can also become infected by inhaling infectious droplets that a sick cat has coughed into the air.
Who is at risk: People that live in or travel to the western United States, particularly in rural areas, may be at risk. In addition, people with animal contact (for example, sleeping with pets) and hunters may be at risk.
Signs in cats: Cats are especially at risk for plague. Cats with plague may have a fever, low appetite, low energy, and swollen lymph nodes on their neck that can sometimes look like a wound. Cats can develop plague pneumonia and may cough or have difficulty breathing. Owners should minimize contact with sick pets and seek veterinary care as soon as possible to decrease the risk of people getting sick.
Symptoms in people: Bubonic plague is the most common form in people. Symptoms of bubonic plague include painful, swollen lymph nodes, sudden onset of high fever, chills, headache, and weakness. Other forms of plague, including septicemic plague and plague pneumonia, can cause more severe symptoms.
Rabies is a deadly neurologic disease caused by a virus that spreads primarily through bites of infected animals. Cat owners should get cats vaccinated against rabies.
How it spreads: Rabies spreads through contact with saliva or brain/nervous system tissue from an infected animal, usually through scratches or bites.
Who is at risk: Rabies is rare in the United States because of successful animal control and vaccination programs, but the disease is still found in wild animals such as bats, foxes, raccoons, and skunks. You or your pet could be at risk for rabies if you come into contact with an infected animal.
Signs in cats: Cats with rabies often experience sudden behavioral changes and progressive paralysis. They may also have restlessness, panting, or they may attack other animals, people, or objects. Animals with rabies typically die within a few days after symptoms start.
Symptoms in people: Symptoms of rabies in people can appear days to months after exposure. Once symptoms appear, it is almost always too late for treatment, so if you have been bitten by a cat or another animal, you should wash the wound immediately and see a doctor right away.
Ringworm is an infection caused by fungus that can infect the skin, hair, or nails of people and animals.
How it spreads: Ringworm spreads through direct contact with an infected animal or person (touching), or from the environment.
Who is at risk: Anyone can get ringworm.
Signs in cats: Some cats might not show signs of ringworm infection, but others typically have small areas of hair loss around their ears, face, or legs with scaly or crusty skin. Kittens are most commonly affected.
Symptoms in people: Ringworm infections in people are usually itchy and can appear on almost any part of the body. Redness, scaling, cracking of the skin, or a ring-shaped rash may occur. If the infection is on the scalp or beard, hair may fall out. Infected nails can become discolored, thick, or could crumble.
Roundworm is a parasite that can cause an infection called toxocariasis. Roundworms are commonly found in the intestines of cats.
How it spreads: Cats shed roundworm eggs in their poop. People and cats can get roundworms by swallowing roundworm eggs from the environment, such as dirt contaminated with cat poop.
Who is at risk: Anyone can become infected with roundworms.
Signs in cats: Kittens typically don’t appear sick but those that do could have mild diarrhea, dehydration, a rough coat, and a pot-bellied appearance.
Symptoms in people: There are two types of illness associated with roundworms in people. Ocular toxocariasis happens when roundworm larvae migrate to the eye and can cause vision loss, eye inflammation, or damage to the retina. Typically, only one eye is affected. Visceral toxocariasis happens when the roundworm larvae migrate to various body organs (like the liver, lungs, or central nervous system) and can cause fever, fatigue, coughing or wheezing, or abdominal pain.
Salmonellosis is caused by Salmonella bacteria, which are most commonly spread through contaminated food. Salmonella also spreads from animals, including cats, to people and from people to people.
How it spreads: People can become infected by eating contaminated food or through contact with animal poop. Cats can become infected with Salmonella by eating infected birds, rodents, or contaminated pet food, especially raw pet food.
Who is at risk: Anyone can get a Salmonella infection, but children younger than 5 years of age, adults 65 years of age and older, and people with weakened immune systems are more at risk for serious illness.
Signs in cats: Adults cats typically do not show signs of infection. Infected kittens may have diarrhea.
Symptoms in people: People may experience diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps. Symptoms usually start within 6 hours–4 days after infection and last 4–7 days.
Sporotrichosis is an infection caused by fungus found in the environment.
How it spreads: The fungus typically spreads from the environment through a cut or scrape in the skin, but has also been associated with scratches or bites from animals, particularly cats.
Who is at risk: Anyone can get sporotrichosis, but people who handle plant matter (such as moss, roses, or hay) or come in contact with infected animals are especially at risk. People with weakened immune systems are at a higher risk for infection, particularly for disseminated infections.
Signs in cats: Cats with sporotrichosis may have no signs of illness to serious disease. Signs often begin with small draining wounds that become raised lumps with the surface eroded away. The disease can then worsen.
Symptoms in people: The symptoms of sporotrichosis depend on where the fungus is growing.
- Cutaneous (skin) form: Begins with a small, painless bump that shows up around 1-12 weeks after exposure. The bump can be red, pink, or purple and grows larger to eventually look like an open sore or ulcer that is very slow to heal. Additional bumps can appear near the original one.
- Disseminated form: In this form, the infection affects the internal organs and bones.
- Pulmonary form: Symptoms include cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, and fever.
The disseminated and pulmonary forms can be very serious and sometimes deadly.
Pets are at risk for tickborne infections, including Lyme disease, tularemia, ehrlichiosis, babesiosis, and others. Pet owners should consult with a veterinarian on appropriate products for their pets to prevent ticks. Treating pets for ticks can reduce the risk of tickborne diseases for you and your pets.
How it spreads: Tickborne germs spread through the bite of an infected tick. During the feeding process, small amounts of saliva pass from the tick into the skin of the animal or person.
Who is at risk: People and pets that spend time in tick habitat (grassy, wooded, or brushy areas) are at risk for tick exposure. Cats may have ticks in and around the ears, around the eyelids, under collars, under front legs, between back legs, between the toes, or around the tail. Remove ticks from pets promptly to reduce disease risk.
Signs in pets: Signs of tickborne disease in pets can vary depending on the type of infection, or they may not show any signs of illness.
Symptoms in people: Symptoms of tickborne diseases in people can vary, but usually include fever, chills, body aches, and sometimes a rash. Some tickborne diseases can be very serious and even deadly. See your healthcare provider if you have been in tick habitat or been bitten by a tick and develop any of these symptoms.
Toxoplasmosis is a disease caused by a parasite found in soil, water, meat, or poop from an infected animal, particularly cats.
How it spreads: People can get toxoplasmosis through contact with cat poop or by eating undercooked meat or shellfish. Cats become infected by eating infected rodents, birds, or other small animals. The parasite then sheds in the cat’s feces, contaminating the environment or the cat’s litterbox. People can get infected by consuming contaminated food or water. People can also become infected if they do not wash their hands after cleaning a cat’s litterbox or handling anything contaminated by cat poop.
Who is at risk: Anyone can get toxoplasmosis, but people with weakened immune systems are more likely to have serious illness. Pregnant women infected with the parasite can pass the infection to their unborn child, which can result in birth defects.
Signs in cats: Cats with toxoplasmosis rarely appear sick but can shed the parasite in feces for as long as 3 weeks after infection.
Symptoms in people: Most healthy people with toxoplasmosis don’t have symptoms, but some may have mild flu-like symptoms, or rarely, develop eye disease. People with weakened immune systems can have more serious complications from toxoplasmosis, including brain disease. Pregnant women who may have been exposed should talk with their doctor because of the risk for birth defects.
How to stay healthy around pet cats
Before buying or adopting a pet cat, make sure a cat is the right type of pet for your family. Cats can sometimes carry germs that can make people sick, even when they appear clean and healthy. Visit your veterinarian for routine care to keep your cat healthy and to prevent infectious diseases.
Wash your hands
- Wash your hands with soap and running water:
- After handling cats, their food and water dishes, or their supplies
- After contact with cat saliva or poop
- After cleaning a litter box
- After gardening, especially if outdoor cats live in the area
- Before you eat or drink
- Adults should supervise hand washing for children under 5 years of age.
- Use hand sanitizer if soap and water are not readily available.
- Wear gloves while gardening, particularly if you know that outdoor cats live in the area.
Safely clean up after your cat
Cats can carry many germs in their poop. To stay healthy, take precautions when cleaning a cat’s litter box.
- Change litter boxes daily.
- Always wash your hands after cleaning the litter box, even if you use a scoop to remove the poop.
- People with weakened immune systems and pregnant women should not clean litter boxes if possible, as they are more at risk for complications from germs spread by cats. If no one else can perform the task, wear disposable gloves and wash your hands afterwards.
- Keep your cat’s litter box away from other animals, children, and food preparation areas.
Prevent cat scratches and bites
Cat bites and scratches can spread germs, even if the wound does not seem deep or serious. For example, cat scratch disease can happen if a scratch only breaks the surface of the skin. We don’t know exactly how many people are bitten or scratched by cats each year because incidents often aren’t reported. However, we do know that about 20-80% of reported cat bites and scratches become infected.
How to prevent cat bites and scratches
- Be cautious with unfamiliar animals. Approach cats with care, even if they seem friendly.
- Avoid rough play with cats and kittens. Rough play causes cats to be defensive toward people.
- Avoid rough play when animals are young. This will lead to fewer scratches and bites as animals become older. Studies have shown cats generally bite when provoked.
- Trim your cat’s nails regularly. If you need help, ask your veterinarian.
- Parents should tell children to let them know if they are ever bitten or scratched by any animal, including cats.
What to do if you are bitten or scratched by a cat
If you are bitten or scratched by a cat, you should:
- Wash wounds with warm soapy water immediately.
- Seek medical attention if:
- You don’t know if the cat has been vaccinated against rabies.
- The cat appears sick.
- The wound is serious.
- The wound becomes red, painful, warm or swollen.
- It has been more than 5 years since your last tetanus shot.
- Report the bite to animal control or your local health department if the bite is unprovoked and
- The cat is a stray, or
- You are unsure if the cat has been vaccinated against rabies.
- Because of the risk of rabies, ensure that the cat is seen by a veterinarian and contact your local health department if it becomes sick or dies shortly after the bite.
How to keep pet cats healthy
Keeping your cat healthy helps to keep you and your family healthy. To learn how to stay healthy around pet cats, visit the Healthy People section.
Before choosing a cat
- Certain types of cat or kitten adoptions, like international pet adoption, may not be suitable for your family because of the risk for disease. This is particularly true if young children, pregnant women, or people with weakened immune systems live in the household.
- Research and learn how to properly care for your cat or kitten before purchase. Ask your veterinarian or pet store staff about the proper food, care, and enclosure or environment that is best for the cat or kitten you are selecting.
- Be aware that cats may shed Toxoplasma, Giardia, hookworms, roundworms and other germs in their poop. Plan to change the litterbox daily and always wash your hands after.
How to choose a cat
- Match a cat’s personality and activity levels with your family, the animals you already have in your household, and the amount of time you have to spend with your pet.
- Pick a cat that is bright, alert, and playful. Cats and kittens should have shiny, soft fur that is free of poop and debris.
- Signs of sickness in a cat include appearing sluggish or depressed, having diarrhea, abnormal breathing, and fluid running from its eyes or nose.
- Make sure to take your new cat or kitten to the veterinarian within a few days to a week after adoption.
- If your cat becomes sick or dies soon after purchase or adoption, take it to the veterinarian promptly, and inform the pet store, breeder, or rescue organization about the pet’s illness or death. Make sure to tell your veterinarian if the pet was adopted from a shelter or from international pet adoption.
How to house your cat
- It is important that you provide a safe, warm, and comfortable environment for your cat to live in. Talk to your veterinarian about creating a safe environment for your cat.
- If you allow your cat outside, provide shelter when it is cold or rainy and shade when it is hot. Your cat should have access to the indoors at night to stay safe from predators.
- Make sure your cat has access to food and fresh water every day.
- Be aware that leaving food outdoors for your cat may attract unwanted wildlife. This wildlife can spread diseases to your cat.
- Each cat in a household should have its own litterbox plus one additional box.
Monitor your cat’s health
- Take your cat to the veterinarian regularly to keep it healthy and prevent infectious diseases.
- Talk to your veterinarian about preventive treatments for fleas, heartworms, ticks, and other parasites.
- Make sure to clean up any urine, poop, or vomit in the house immediately, and disinfect the area after cleaning. Make sure to wash your hands thoroughly afterwards.
- Contact your veterinarian if you notice any signs of illness in your pet. Keep in mind that even cats that look healthy can spread germs to people and other animals.
Get your cat vaccinated
- Keep your cat up-to-date on routine vaccinations like rabies and feline distemper vaccine.
- Vaccinations can help protect your cat from dangerous diseases and help them live a longer, healthier life.
- Tell your veterinarian about your cat’s lifestyle, including whether it is indoor or outdoor or both and if there are other animals at home or that the cat may come into contact with.
- Ask your veterinarian about other vaccines you may need or want for your cat, like feline leukemia.
Protect your cat from ticks
Talk to your veterinarian about:
- The best tick prevention products for your cat
- Tickborne diseases in your area
Cats are extremely sensitive to a variety of chemicals. Do not apply any tick prevention products to your cat without first asking your veterinarian.
To further reduce the chances that a tick bite will make your cat sick:
- Check your cat for ticks every day, especially if they spend time outdoors. If you find a tick on your cat, remove it right away.
- Run your fingers through your cat’s fur with gentle pressure to feel for any small bumps.
- Looks for ticks in the following areas:
- In and around the ears
- Around the eyelids
- Under the collar
- Under the front legs
- Between the back legs
- Between the toes
- Around the tail
- Reduce tick habitat in your yard.
Selecting and caring for a pet cat
- Selecting a catexternal icon
American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA)
- Traveling with your Cat
- Administration of Rabies Vaccination State Lawsexternal icon
Includes PDF table of laws by state. American Veterinary Medical Association
Staying healthy around cats
- How to check your pet for ticks
- Preventing ticks on your pets
- 4 Tips to Stay Healthy Around Your Pet
- Pet Safety in Emergencies
- Pet Food Safety
- Adopt These Healthy Pet Habits
- How to Stay Healthy around Pets
- What Every Pet Owner Should Know about Roundworms & Hookworms