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Feline Dangers

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The human population can be divided into two categories: cat lovers and others. People generally regard cats as “safe” pets. This is because they know of “mad dogs” and the dreaded fatal diseaserabies — that they may transmit. Cats and dogs belong to the same mammalian species but come from different branches of the same family tree. And, as a matter of fact, cats spread the same diseases as dogs do.


While dogs are leashed, confined and controlled, cats are never chained. They are, therefore, more likely to be infected by diseases. Public awareness about dog bites is high and this ensures that affected people immediately seek treatment. Cat bites or scratches, on the other hand, are not taken very seriously.

Domesticated cats can revert to their “wild” or “tom cat” ways on certain days. They disappear for varying lengths of time. During these periods, cats — even well fed ones — can attack, kill and eat other animals. They are also territorial and ferociously defend their area. These battles can leave them injured. Cats can acquire rabies during these forays because of contact with other infected cats or dogs. After getting infected, they may harbour the dreaded rabies virus, remaining asymptomatic all the while.

Unlike dogs, cats with rabies rarely become furious biters. Instead, they tend to develop the passive form of the disease. They remain silent and withdrawn but infective, until they eventually die.

Cats forage for food. If they come across the carcass or placenta of cows or buffaloes, they eat it. Domesticated cattle often harbour cysts of an organism called Toxoplasma gondii.CLICK & SEE The cats then acquire the infection but remain asymptomatic. As they groom themselves, they shed the infective oocytes (eggs) of the organism, and the floors of houses and other surfaces become contaminated. These oocytes can remain dormant for years unless they are accidentally swallowed.

Children are particularly susceptible to Toxoplasma infection because of their propensity to touch contaminated surfaces and then their mouths. Almost 40 per cent of the adult population has had asymptomatic infection with demonstrable antibody levels.

Toxoplasma infection is dangerous if it is acquired during pregnancy as the infection can be transmitted via the placenta to the foetus. It can affect the baby’s brain and result in a small head, developmental retardation, blindness and deafness.

Cats were worshiped in ancient Egypt and reared by the royal families (of the pharaohs). Killing a cat was a serious offence punishable by death. The royal families eventually perished, with many members dying young or born deformed with small (microcephalic) heads and having seizures and developmental retardation. These are classical symptoms of Toxoplasma gondii infection.

Almost 75 per cent of cats carry pasteurella bacteria in their mouths and can transfer the infection upon biting. Hence, wounds inflicted by cats need to be cleaned thoroughly with hydrogen peroxide solution. An antibiotic ointment (Neosporin or Bacitracin) should then be applied.

Cats often have fleas and ticks living on them unless these are manually removed by the owner. The insects can jump onto other warm-blooded hosts such as human beings. They cause red, itchy lesions. The patches can be mistaken for frustratingly recurrent eczema that remains unresponsive to treatment. The fleas also harbour the bartonella species of bacteria which can cause “cat scratch disease” with fever, body ache and enlarged lymph nodes.

Cats suffer from diarrhoea caused by the same viruses and bacteria that infect humans. Their excreta may dry unnoticed in a corner of the house, contaminating the environment and transmitting infection.

Similar groups of streptococcal bacteria cause tonsillitis in both humans and cats. The disease is mild in cats but can be severe, persistent, recurrent and unresponsive to treatment in children and immuno-compromised adults.

H. pylori, a bacterium implicated in stomach ulcers and cancer, is found in cats and can spread from them to humans. Many cat owners panicked when they read that H. pylori is a familial infection commoner in families that have cats as pets.

Mycobacteria (belonging to the TB group) species, typical and atypical, can cause diseases in cats. These can then be transmitted to humans too. This is likely to occur in immuno-deficient (HIV) individuals and young children.

Small pox has been eradicated, but cowpox infection still occurs and is transmitted by cats. The latter can cause fever and rash with a similar confounding appearance in humans, particularly children.

Diseases caused by cats are greater threats to children, pregnant women and immuno-compromised adults (HIV or cancer patients). The diagnosis may be missed as patients, unaware of the serious implications, fail to mention feline contacts to the attending physician.


Immunise your cat, yourself and your family against rabies

Treat all illnesses (diarrhoea, sore throat and cough) in your cat promptly

Do not allow cats in areas where food is prepared

Do not feed cats from your plate

Wash hands after contact with cats

Swab the house with a disinfectant solution daily

Sources: The Telegraph (Kolkata, India)

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