Kittens and Zoonosis
Dr. Leah Carpenter
You have a new kitten and your hopes are to see that she remains happy and healthy. What you may not realize is that your new four-legged family member may carry a common kitten disease – there are several – that can pose significant health risks to people. However, these risks are minimized with good veterinary care and common sense.
The Most Common Kitten Diseases
Your kitten may become infected with roundworms when she nurses from her mother (the queen). Consuming roundworm eggs shed by another cat, especially an infected queen, can also infect her. Signs that your kitten may have roundworms include: poor hair coat, a potbelly, vomiting and/or diarrhea.
People can become infected by consuming roundworm eggs. This is more likely to happen to children who encounter a contaminated outdoor area, and get the sticky roundworm eggs on their clothes or toys, then their hands and, eventually, in their mouth. Symptoms of infection in people include, but, are not limited to: fever, stomach pain, coughing, vision problems or problems with the nervous system.
Kittens may become infected with hookworms prior to birth, while nursing or from eating animals such as infected rodents. Signs of a hookworm infection are the same as a roundworm infection, except hookworms can cause profound blood loss (anemia). The hookworms bite at the kitten's intestinal tract, causing it to bleed. If such an infection goes unrecognized, the kitten could become very ill and possibly die.
People get hookworm infections the same way they get a roundworm infection – by ingesting eggs after being in a contaminated environment. Another route of infection for people is migration of the hookworm larva through the skin. The most common symptom of hookworm infection in people is a skin rash.
A tapeworm infection in a kitten is usually the result of eating fleas, lice or a rodent that's contaminated with tapeworm larva. Besides tail rubbing, rarely will you see obvious signs of infection in your kitten. It's more likely that you'll notice rice-like particles, which are egg packets, around your kitten's rectum. Likewise, if you see fleas on your kitten, you can be pretty sure that your kitten has tapeworms.
Remember, cats groom themselves very well and, because of this, they may eat any fleas they have. Consequently, it's sometimes difficult to prove that a cat has fleas. It's safe to assume that a stray kitten, or a kitten from a heavily populated place, like a cattery or shelter, has fleas and tapeworms, until proven otherwise.
If there's even the slightest doubt that your kitten may be infected, treatment for fleas and tapeworms is still appropriate. See your veterinarian for recommendations for safe flea remedies. Make sure it is for kitten use only. Remedies for cats or dogs may be dangerous for your kitten.
People, typically children, can get a tapeworm infection by consuming fleas or consuming tapeworm eggs that have been shed in the feces. Symptoms associated with a tapeworm infection include stomachache, lack of appetite, or itching around the rectum.
Ringworm is a fungal infection that's more prevalent in cats or kittens that have come from a densely populated environment, such as a cattery or shelter. Signs of a fungal infection in your kitten might include patchy, or generalized hair loss, scaly skin or excessive grooming.
Ringworm is highly infectious to other pets and humans. It's easy to handle an infected pet and get the fungus on your hands or under your fingernails, and then pass it on to other people or animals. Itchy, reddened areas of skin that may or may not be circular, typifying ringworm infection in people.
Toxoplasmosis, commonly called "toxo," is a parasite that has received a significant amount of attention. Cats can be carriers and few become ill from toxoplasmosis. The potential for exposure to toxoplasmosis is the primary reason that pregnant women are discouraged from cleaning litter boxes. Toxoplasma is a protozoan parasite that cats can acquire after ingesting tainted prey or raw meat. After a brief transition within the cat, toxoplasma eggs are shed in the cat's feces. Humans can then contract toxoplasma by ingesting these eggs. Humans can also contract toxoplasmosis after ingestion of raw or undercooked meat.
Toxoplasmosis typically does not cause illness in a healthy adult person. The concerns regarding toxoplasmosis are primarily directed at immunocompromised individuals or the developing fetus. Toxoplasma infections can result in a variety of serious illnesses in a susceptible person. Serious birth defects can occur in the fetus exposed to toxoplasmosis.
Prevention of toxoplasmosis exposure is simple. Pregnant women and immunocompromised people should not clean the litter box. Other household members should clean the litter box daily and frequently wash their hands after handling the litter or the cat. There is no need to remove the cat from the household. Unfortunately, there is not a current accurate test to determine if your cat is a carrier for toxoplasmosis.
The key to preventing infection is washing your hands and the hands of your children after handling your pets and/or being outdoors. Remember also that litter pans that are cleaned frequently aren't a likely source of disease, so frequent thorough scrubbing is recommended. Kittens that are kept outdoors, in a barn for example, are more likely to contaminate the environment by indiscriminant defecation. Likewise, felines love to defecate in sandboxes, and consequently, are potentially contaminated with roundworm or hookworm eggs.
Most importantly, if you or your child shows any of the aforementioned symptoms, you should contact your doctor immediately and be sure to tell your doctor that you have cats.
How to Prevent Infection in Your Kitten
Good veterinary care is key to maintaining your kitten's health and, in turn, the health of your family. Make sure your new kitten sees your veterinarian by 6 weeks of age. At the first visit, the kitten should receive a complete physical exam, her first in a series of vaccines, should have her stool checked for parasites and receive a dewormer.
To check for intestinal parasites, simply bring a small fresh sample of feces in a sealed container to your veterinarian. The sample can be checked under a microscope for parasite eggs. Even if the sample's negative, your veterinarian may go ahead and deworm your kitten with a dewormer that's effective against roundworms and hookworms, because these worms are common and their eggs won't necessarily show up in the fecal sample. If your kitten has fleas, then a dewormer that also targets tapeworms is appropriate. Additionally, when your kitten's old enough, flea control can begin.