As we’re all now well aware, measles is back with a vengeance. Ground Zero in this case: Disneyland.
What was once The Happiest Place on Earth became the Most Infectious Place on Earth, at least for a short period over the holidays. Those 40 infected people have spread the measles virus across the country. In the month of January alone, 150 cases in 17 states were reported nationwide. According to the California Department of Public Health, 20 percent of those cases wound up hospitalized.
Whenever these outbreaks occur, it’s natural for people to look around them and assess their environment for any and all risk factors, particularly when one is responsible for someone who is immunocompromised or too young to receive vaccines.
Veterinarians coach the team on what to say when the inevitable calls come in: “Can my cat give me measles?”
In one word: No.
The CDC states unequivocally that “measles is a disease of humans and is not spread by any other animal species.”
Rest assured, your cat is not incubating measles. Could he or she act as a fomite (something that carries the virus on it)? I suppose theoretically that could happen, as the virus can live on surfaces or airspaces where an infected person has touched or sneezed, but anything with any surface area whatsoever could do the same. I would be much more afraid of a doorknob in the ER than a cat who grooms itself daily, let’s put it that way.
Not to say your cat can’t pass anything on to you; they can and they do, though fortunately not on a regular basis. Regular preventive care and deworming will take care of parasites like roundworms or tapeworms, and getting bald or flaky patches checked out can help reduce your risk of catching ringworm from a cat. Cleaning pet bowls daily and washing hands after petting and feeding your cat will greatly reduce your chance of catching a bacterial infection from your cat.
The two most commonly talked about and deadly zoonotic diseases in cats are also pretty uncommon: Toxoplasmosis, aka “the one pregnant women are always worried about,” is actually pretty hard to catch from a cat despite the fact that they are the primary host.
Why is that? Toxoplasma is only actively shed in the feces for a couple of weeks after infection, and even then it takes a couple of days for the eggs to activate in the feces and become infectious. My obstetrician told me as long as I scooped the litter box every day I was fine, though that never stopped me from making my husband do it throughout both pregnancies.
Most cases of Toxoplasma in people come not from the household pet but from gardening, or from eating infected meat.
The other worrisome zoonotic disease is rabies. Left untreated it is a highly fatal disease that kills 50,000 people worldwide. It’s seen in almost all mammals and any of them can transmit the virus to people through a bite, though most human infections internationally result from dog bites. Vaccination regulations in the United States have kept the disease greatly in check, and thank goodness for that.
So the best way to keep yourself and your pet healthy and zoonosis free is pretty much what you’d expect: Wash your hands and take your pet to the vet on schedule. As long as you do that, your biggest health risk from your pet will be ankle sprains from tripping over them on the floor. At least that’s how it goes in this house.
Dr. Jessica Vogelsang
Image: Renata Apanaviciene / Shutterstock