Most people know that there are a few diseases that they can catch from cats. These include some types of worms, ringworm, toxoplasmosis, and rabies. Although it is quite rare to pick up a condition from your cat, we are all told that pregnant women should avoid litter tray cleaning to minimise the risk of toxoplasmosis, for example. And everyone knows to practice good hygiene generally around cats, keeping them away from food preparation surfaces and suchlike.
However, most people don't realise that this mechanism can work the other way round too; ie there are a few diseases that can be passed from humans to cats. So is this something we should be concerned about? Could we be a danger to our cats if we are ill? Certainly some people do think so. A recent letter to a cat magazine expressed concern about this issue, and particularly about cats licking their owners faces, lest the cat catch something from its owner. So what is the real situation?
In general, most illnesses and conditions cannot be passed between different species. So in most instances you cannot catch a cough or cold from your cat, and she cannot catch one from you. But there are a few illnesses that can be passed from one species to another. Any ailment that can be passed on in this way is called a zoonotic disease. There are very few of these, but they do exist. However, even fewer of them involve transmission from humans to cats; the other way round is much more common. But let's take a look at those which do exist, and find out how much of a concern they should be to cat owners.
Most types of flu, like colds, cannot be passed between cat and human. For many years it was believed that no flu viruses could cross the species barrier. But there are a very large number of flu viruses, and now it seems that occasional strains can. In 2009 a probable case of human to cat transmission occurred with the H1N1 flu virus, when a cat caught the disease from its owner and eventually died. Since then, there have been a number of other cases of cats apparently catching various flu viruses from their owners, although of course it is always difficult to be certain of the transmission route of a viral disease. But if you have flu, it might b e a good idea to be scrupulously careful with hygiene, and maybe avoid close contact with your cat for the first few days, when you are most infectious.
Although in general your cat cannot catch your cold, as mentioned above, in isolated cases she can. According to experts it really depends on what kind of cold virus is involved. Exotic species such as Bengals have been found to be particularly susceptible to this type of infection, although there have been cases of other breeds and ordinary moggies also picking up colds from their owners. So as with flu, be particularly careful about hygiene when you have a cold and are around your cat.
MRSA, or Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus, to give the disease its full name, is an antibiotic resistant disease typically picked up in hospitals by health workers and patients. A number of cats have been diagnosed with this condition, and a study in the USA showed that the majority of infected cats had owners who worked in healthcare, had been in hospital recently, or were caring for a family member who had been hospitalised not very long ago. Symptoms of this disease include unusual skin rashes and wounds which won't heal. So if you suspect your cat has caught something like this from you, do see your vet as special antibiotics will be required.
The organisms causing these kinds of diseases can be passed from human to cat in exactly the same way as they can be passed from cat to human, ie through infected faeces. So if you are suffering from one of these complaints, be extra careful about hygiene and hand washing, and keep your cat away if you are experiencing diarrhoea or vomiting.
Just as your cat can pass this type of condition on to you, so you can pass it on to your cat. The same applies to fleas, ticks, ringworm, and other worms, although these are so rare in humans that the risk is probably negligible.
This is another disease which could theoretically be passed from human to cat. However, it has long been eradicated in the UK, so the chances of you contracting it and passing it on to your cat are really non-existent.
As can be seen from the above list, the chances of passing some disease on to your cat are really very small, much smaller than the chance of your picking up something from your cat. Nevertheless, if it is something which concerns you, or if you have a sick or ailing cat, you might wish to take a few precautions.
Firstly, keep your cat's vaccinations up to date, which will prevent transmission of most of the flu and other upper respiratory infections. Ensure your cats are generally well cared for and in good health as far as possible. Similarly, take care of your own health. And if you are sick with one of the conditions known to occasionally be passed between cat and human, minimise contact with your cat and wash your hands frequently.
Please don't panic about any of the above! Although it is worth being aware of it, the chance of an owner passing any disease on to their cat is incredibly small. Indeed, this type of thing is probably of only theoretical interest for most of us. But keeping yourself and your cat in good health, and minimising contact between the two of you if you are ill, might well be a good idea, and can certainly do no harm.