Because they may not be vaccinated and are likely to come into contact with diseased cats and other wildlife, outdoor cats, whether stray or feral, are at risk for a variety of illnesses. If you are pondering taking in a stray cat, it is imperative that you keep her away from any other pets in your home until she has been thoroughly examined and deemed healthy by a veterinarian.
Always exercise caution when interacting with stray cats, as some of the diseases they may carry are known to be zoonotic, which means that humans can catch them from animals.
- Rabies - A zoonotic viral disease, rabies affects the spinal cord and brain in mammals, including cats, dogs and humans. Rabies is most commonly contracted through a bite from an infected animal. Though it can take months for symptoms to develop, once they do appear, rabies is almost always fatal.
Seek medical attention right away if you have been bitten by a cat or another animal that could be rabid. You may need to be vaccinated to prevent the virus from becoming active.
Feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency viruses - For cat owners, among the most concerning pathogens associated with stray cats are the feline leukemia virus and the feline immunodeficiency virus, both of which weaken the feline immune system. Cats who carry either of these viruses are more prone to developing cancers and more susceptible to secondary infections. Though
the feline leukemia virus and the feline immunodeficiency virus
are not zoonotic, they are contagious among cats and may be transmitted through bites and grooming.
- Toxoplasmosis - Outdoor cats may hunt birds and other wildlife, which puts them at risk of acquiring Toxoplasma gondii, a parasitic protozoan acquired from contaminated soil or by eating infected raw meat. Humans can catch toxoplasmosis from the feces of an infected cat, though it is more commonly acquired from undercooked meat or contaminated water.
While toxoplasmosis may produce minimal or no symptoms in a healthy person, in a fetus, the parasite can cause brain cysts and other problems, potentially resulting in a miscarriage or stillbirth. Pregnant women should stay away from stray cats and avoid cleaning the litter box of a cat who may be infected.
- Intestinal parasites - Stray cats may harbor a variety of intestinal parasites, often referred to as worms, including roundworms, hookworms and tapeworms. An infected cat will shed parasite eggs in his feces. Other cats and humans -- particularly children, who may put unclean hands in their mouth -- can acquire these parasites if they swallow eggs. In humans, roundworm larva can travel to the eyes, potentially leading to blindness. The larvae of hookworms can penetrate human skin and cause localized lesions and discomfort.
- Bartonellosis - Stray and feral cats may carry the bacteria Bartonella henselae, which they can transmit to humans by licking an open wound or scratching deep enough to puncture the skin. The bacteria rarely produces symptoms in cats. A person scratched by an infected cat may develop an infection at the site of the wound or scratch and also may come down with bartonellosis, known as cat-scratch disease. Symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue and swollen lymph nodes.