It’s a warm summer afternoon in June and you’ve just finished taking care of the kids so you can enjoy some well-deserved peace and quiet. As you step inside your house, your eyes are drawn to your two pets a young kitten lounging on your kitchen counter and an old tabby who’s stretched out on top of the refrigerator with her head resting against the freezer door. You decide to let them stay outside because they love being outdoors. After all, where else will they find their favorite squeaky toy?
While most people probably don’t think twice before allowing their cats or dogs outside, there is actually quite a bit more at stake than just keeping your pets happy. There are several diseases that could be transmitted by animals like cats and dogs including rabies, scabies, FIV/FeLV, sarcoptic mange, ringworm, coccidia and even allergies. It’s important to keep these diseases away from both humans and other animals.
In this article, we’ll look at some of the biggest threats posed by outdoor cats. We’ll also explore how to prevent exposure to these diseases and discuss what to do if your cat starts scratching excessively. We’ll begin with one of the worst possible scenarios contracting rabies from your cat.
Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV)
When you hear the word “rabies,” chances are high that your first thought is something along the lines of “I hope I never have to see anything as horrible as rabid animals.” And while you might not want to see any animal act rabid, you definitely don’t want to become infected with rabies yourself. Rabid means furious and these angry animals aren’t afraid to bite those around them.
Humans usually contract rabies through close contact with an infected animal such as a bat, skunk or raccoon. However, you can also come into contact with the virus through an open wound or broken skin. If you happen to encounter an animal known to carry rabies, wash off any exposed areas immediately and seek medical attention.
The incubation period varies from person to person, but symptoms usually appear within 30 days after infection. Symptoms include fever, headache, nausea, muscle aches, sore throat, stomach cramps and general weakness.
If left untreated, rabies progresses quickly and leads to death within 3 weeks. Luckily, modern medicine has developed effective vaccines that can protect us from contracting the disease. In fact, it’s estimated that worldwide nearly 55,000 lives were saved due to vaccination between 1980 and 1995.
But what happens if you’re bitten by an infected animal?
You have three options: Immediate Immersion Treatment (IIT), Supportive Care and Postexposure Prophylaxis (PEP). IIT involves washing the area with soap and water, applying antibiotic ointment and then immersing the site in milk for 10 minutes.
This treatment must take place within 72 hours of exposure. Supportive care includes pain relievers, antibiotics and antihistamines, while PEP involves receiving rabies immunoglobulin shots over the course of a month.
Like rabies, scabies is a contagious parasitic infestation caused by a tiny eight-legged worm called Sarcoptes scabei. Scabies burrow under the outer layer of skin and feed on blood, which causes intense itching and red welts to form. While most cases occur in children ages 1 to 5 years, adults can also be affected. Transmission typically occurs during close personal contact with someone who already has scabies.
There are only five species of crab lice in existence today, none of which affect humans directly. Instead, transmission takes place when human clothing comes into contact with contaminated fur or wool. Once the clothes touch the hosts’ hair, the parasite travels down the fibers and bites the scalp, face, neck and shoulders. Although the likelihood of getting scabies increases with age, anyone can develop the condition regardless of gender or race.
Once again, there are three main treatments available to rid yourself of scabies: Medicated shampoo, prescription cream and lotion, and topical creams and ointments. Shampooing the dog every day with medicated shampoo is an easy way to treat scabies in dogs.
For cats, however, doctors recommend using a prescription cream or lotion since many owners won’t use shampoos containing benzoyl peroxide to kill lice. Topical creams work best on cats with thick double coats and require multiple applications each week. Lotions and ointments can sometimes be used once a week, depending upon the severity of the case.
Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV)
Although your cat doesn’t need to worry about encountering a vampire, it does need to avoid becoming infected with feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). FIV is a disease similar to HIV found in humans that weakens the immune system and makes its host susceptible to opportunistic illnesses. Cats are especially vulnerable to FIV because they spend so much time outside and hunting. They also share food and objects with domesticated felines, increasing the chance of spreading the infection.
Ownership of a purebred cat puts you at higher risk for FIV. Most cats acquire the infection via saliva, urine or feces. Since FIV isn’t passed easily among cats, it’s unlikely that your cat’s friend would pick up the viral infection from his playtime with yours. However, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 4 percent of feral cats nationwide test positive for FIV.
The good news is that FIV is relatively easy to diagnose. Your veterinarian will perform a series of tests, including testing the cat’s blood, to determine whether or not he has been infected. These tests include enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) and Western blotting, which detect antibodies specific to FIV. Antibodies help fight viruses and bacteria by attacking and neutralizing them.
When a patient produces enough antibodies to combat FIV, the infection becomes inactive. Unfortunately, while the majority of patients produce antibodies within six months, some remain permanently ill without ever developing immunity.
Of course, preventing FIV isn’t always easy. Up next, we’ll talk about a parasite spread by cats that can infect both cats and people.
Sarcoptic mange is a painful skin disorder caused by roundworms living beneath the surface of the skin. Like scabies, these worms burrow underneath the outermost layer of the skin causing intense itchiness and inflammation. People often mistake the condition for fleas or ticks, though sarcoptic mange cannot be transferred from one animal to another through normal grooming practices. Unlike ticks, however, sarcoptic mange is spread by direct physical contact with an infected animal.
The largest carriers of sardonic mites are cats. Because cats groom themselves by rubbing against things like furniture and blankets, they are particularly prone to developing sardonic mange. Other mammals, such as rabbits and guinea pigs, can also contract sardonic mange. Humans rarely fall victim to the infection, primarily because of our lack of regular interaction with domestic cats.
Diagnosis of sardonic mange is difficult because it mimics many common conditions including dermatitis, allergic reactions, ringworm, scabies, staph infections and yeast infections. To make matters worse, the condition can spread to humans, leading to complications ranging from minor irritation to severe scarring. Fortunately, most cats recover completely from the infection within four to 12 weeks.
Since the early 1990s, cats have had the opportunity to receive vaccinations against rabies. Before that time, the vast majority of cats in the United States caught rabies from stray dogs. Today, fewer than 2 percent of U.S. cats die annually from rabies.