If you're a pet parent, you not only share your heart and home with your cat, but also germs—lots of germs.
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And while most people are aware that, rarely, cats can transmit illnesses to humans, you may be surprised to know that, just as rarely, humans can transmit illnesses to cats. Fortunately, the common cold isn't one of them, or at least, only in rare circumstances. Although both humans and cats are affected by cold viruses, the viruses are species-specific.
That said, you should be aware of the rare conditions that are ripe for transmitting a cold to your cat. But, generally, in the majority of cases, your cat is not likely to catch your cold. However, along with knowing the rare circumstances in which your cat can catch your cold, you should also be aware of other illnesses that are transmissible, either way, and how to reduce the risks of making your cat sick, or vice versa.
Cats can catch your cold, but it's rare
Dogs can't catch a cold or flu from you, but Scott Weese, the Canada research chair in zoonotic diseases and an associate professor at the Ontario Veterinary College, says that cats can catch a cold or flu from you. He explains, "The virus attaches to cells in the respiratory tract of felines similarly to how it does in humans." He cites reports of H1N1, or swine flu found in cats in the United States. H1N1 is one of the three common influenza viruses the human flu shot protects against. But it's not a cold.
Human colds are spread by viruses you "catch" from someone else who is sick, and not from being in the cold or damp, wet conditions as some think. Human cold viruses include rhinovirus, coronavirus, respiratory syncytial virus, or parainfluenza virus. According to Weese, cats can catch your cold depending on which virus it is, but emphasizes it does not commonly occur.
And it's simply common sense that even if you have a case of the common cold, it's prudent to limit contact with your cat if she's old, immunosuppressed, a kitten with an immature immune system, sick, pregnant, or recovering from surgery. It's best to check with your vet if in doubt about your cat's vulnerability to your cold.
Don't mistake a cold for an upper respiratory flare-up
If you're wondering if your cat has caught your cold because he's been sneezing for the last few days, and his eyes are watering up, it could actually be an upper respiratory infection that he's genetically predisposed to, says Dr. Mike Fietz, a small-animal veterinarian at Georgetown Veterinary Hospital in Virginia.
URI's can occur out of the blue, even without any recent exposure to another cat with the infection. URI's never really go away and can flare up at any time. Most upper respiratory infections in cats are caused by one of two viruses—calicivirus and herpesvirus, and the good news is that most cats will fight off the symptoms and resume life as usual. However, the viruses permanently leave their own genetic material inside cells and infected cats become lifelong carriers, says Dr. Fietz, with no way to get rid of the viruses.
What are zoonoses?
A zoonotic disease is an illness which is transmitted from an animal to a human. Zoonotic diseases include rabies, ringworm, toxoplasmosis, and several bacterial infections. The method of transmission is through hand-to-mouth contact, or by contamination of a human skin wound. The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention has a list of the diseases that cats can transmit to humans.
Odds are good that you're not likely to contract a zoonotic disease, says Pet Health Network. But you are more at risk if you're over age 65, under age five, or have a weakened immune system from a pre-existing disease or a medical condition.
What are reverse zoonoses?
Reverse zoonoses are illnesses/diseases transmitted to animals by humans. Human-to-animal illness/disease transmissions include mumps, ringworm, influenza, and tuberculosis. An increasing number of reports indicate that humans are transmitting pathogens to animals, but it's still quite rare, especially in regard to domestic pets like cats.
Overview of the two most common reverse zoonoses:
Ringworm, or dermatophytosis, is perhaps the most common two-way human-to-animal and animal-to-human infectious disease. Despite its name, ringworm is not caused by a worm or other parasite, but a fungus. In humans, it manifests in circular patches of itchy redness. In cats, it causes similar circular patches of baldness or no visible symptoms at all.
Influenza, also known as the flu, is caused by influenza viruses. It's a contagious, respiratory illness that usually comes on suddenly and can be mild or severe, even resulting in death if complications like pneumonia arise. Influenza is not a cold, and yes, your cat can catch your flu.
If you recognize any of the following symptoms of influenza in yourself or other human members of your family, consult with your doctor for diagnosis and treatment, and follow the safe guidelines for interacting with your cat so you do not transmit the illness to him.
- Sore throat
- Stuffy or runny nose
- Body aches
Even healthy people can get influenza, but at highest risk are people 65 years and older, people with chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, or asthma, pregnant women, and young children and infants.
If you suffer from any of these conditions, you can reduce the risk of passing it on to your cat by strictly following hygiene measures. First gaining attention around 2012, the fact that flu can be transmitted to your cat, and your dog raises a lot of concern for scientists and veterinarians, and, of course, pet owners, for future mutations of the flu virus. "Any time you have infection of a virus into a new species, it's a concern, a black box of uncertainty." notes Christiane Loehr, a professor at the OSU College of Veterinary Medicine.
How cat owners can minimize the risks of catching or transmitting an illness
Trans-species transmission of illness/disease is much lower than same-species transmission. Your cat is much more likely to catch an illness from another cat than he is from you or another person. However, to be on the safe side, you can minimize the risks of either transmitting an illness to your cat or contracting an illness from her by following these common-sense hygiene guidelines.
Most importantly, you should wash your hands with soap and running water, and if not available, use hand sanitizer:
- After petting and handling your cat.
- After handling food and water dishes, bedding, toys, and other cat supplies.
- After contact with your cat's saliva or poop.
- After cleaning a litter box because cat poop contains a lot of germs. Clean the box daily and wear disposable gloves.
- After gardening, particularly if outdoor cats frequent your yard. It's best to wear gardening gloves to prevent any contact with contaminated soil.
- Before you eat or drink.
In addition, you should not let your cat lick your face, and Pete the Vet recommends you do not share your bed with your cat if you are elderly, immunosuppressed (includes very young children, pregnant women, cancer patients receiving chemotherapy or radiation, or have a chronic disease), or have animal-related allergies.
Another major disease preventive is keeping your cat strictly indoors. Cats allowed outdoors are extremely vulnerable to illness and disease, which can pose a risk to humans, as well.
Your veterinarian and physician are the best sources of information about zoonoses and reverse zoonoses, so follow their recommendations for treatment and prevention.
If you have multiple cats, and one cat has a cold virus, it can spread, affecting others, particularly kittens, immunosuppressed, or senior cats. The common symptoms of cat colds include:
- Watery or viscous discharge from the eyes or nose that is clear, white, yellow, or green mucus drainage at the back of the mouth and throat causes cats with a cold to swallow excessively.
- Loss of appetite.
- Raised third eyelid.
In addition to cat colds, same-species contagious illnesses for cats include the following:
- Upper respiratory infections, which, if left untreated, can develop severe complications such as pneumonia.
- Worms such as hookworms, tapeworms, and lungworms. Worms also can infect humans through inadvertently ingesting eggs, hookworms can penetrate human skin.
- Roundworm, a fungus infection, is the most common two-way infectious disease as well as same-species cat disease.
- Feline leukemia virus, also known as FLV, is a transmittable retrovirus that can suppresses a cat's immune system.
When you're out of commission with a miserable cold, take comfort in cuddling with your cat knowing she won't catch a cold just as long as you're sure it's the common cold you have, and not the flu. Why? Well, because some symptoms can be similar and because cats can contract your flu, also known as influenza. And in extremely rare instances your cat can catch your cold, according to zoonotic disease expert Scott Weese, therefore, it's always best to check with your vet if in doubt about your cat's vulnerability to your cold.
Also, if your cat is exhibiting cold symptoms, it could, in fact, be an upper respiratory infection and you should consult with your vet.
Also, keep in mind the other illnesses you can transmit to your cat, and vice versa—washing your hands after petting, feeding, and cleaning your cat's litter box are some of the ways you can reduce the risk of trans-species transmission. Keep your cat indoors, and always follow your vet's and physician's advice regarding transmissible illnesses.
Always check with your veterinarian before changing your pet’s diet, medication, or physical activity routines. This information is not a substitute for a vet’s opinion.
- CDC: Cats
- CDC: How to Stay Healthy Around Pet Cats
- Telegraph: Eight Diseases That Pets Can Pick Up From People
- Pete the Vet: Is It OK to Let Your Pet Sleep in Bed With You
- Pet Health Network: What Can I Catch From My Cat?
- ASPCA:Common Cat Diseases
- Washington State Social and Health Services: What Exactly is Influenza
- Best Health Magazine: Can Cats and Dogs Catch Colds From You
- CVille: The Strange Truth About Cats Catching Colds
- Smithsonian Magazine:Can You the Flu to Your Dog or Your Cat
- Oregon State University: Can You Really Give Your Dog or Cat the Flu?