Neither house cats or community (or feral) cats are significant spreaders of rabies or other diseases amongst humans. This fact, along with the fact that they reduce rodent and other populations that are known to spread disease to humans,helps explain why humans and felines have developed such a close and symbiotic relationship over the years.
Simply put: Americans do not contract rabies from cats according to decade’s worth of CDC and other data. From 2008 to 2017, there were only 23 human cases of the disease reported in the US in total, and none of those were found to be the result of rabid cats. You are more likely to win the lottery than get rabies from a cat: at least a few people win the lottery every year, and no fatal cases of rabies in humans in the US have been caused by cats for over 40 years.
The Role of Vaccination in TN(V)R
Cats can themselves catch rabies, but that too is extremely uncommon. Over the past decade, cats have made up less than 5% of the total known cases of rabies among animals in the United States, with between 200 to 300 infected cats found each year. However, even accounting for the rarity of the disease, to maximize safety for both cats and people Trap, Neuter, Return programs (sometimes referred to as Trap, Neuter, Vaccinate, and Return programs) vaccinate for rabies as a matter of course. It is also common in TNR programs to vaccinate cats against distemper, but this is only for the cat’s health: distemper is not passed from cats to humans.
Understanding and Treating Rabies
Although it is quite rare in the US, rabies is a very serious and contagious viral infection, passed through saliva. The disease is typically fatal if not treated. It must enter the body through a wound, simply getting infected saliva on the skin is not enough to spread it. The most common way to come in contact with rabies is through bites or scratches from rabid animals. Bats, raccoons, skunks, and foxes are the most common carriers of rabies in the US. If you believe you may be at risk, it is important to seek immediate treatment; after symptoms start to become apparent, it is unlikely that treatment will be effective and the disease is much more likely to be fatal.
In people, the first symptoms of rabies are typically tingling or itching at the site of infection as well as flu-like symptoms such as fever, chills, and muscle pain. As rabies progresses, it becomes very difficult to treat as it affects the brain and other parts of the nervous system. This will cause the well known and more serious symptoms, such as anxiety, delirium, hallucinations, fear of water, and insomnia. Symptoms in animals can vary, but some common signs include panting, restlessness, and aggressive behavior. They may begin to lose their ability to move as well.
Cats are one of many animals that can carry the toxoplasmosis parasite. Between 20 and 25% of the people in the US are thought to be carriers, but most did not catch it from cats: the most common way to get toxoplasmosis is through eating undercooked foods (which is how cats themselves get it).
The good news is that, for the vast majority of people, toxoplasmosis is not dangerous, and most will never know they have it as they experience no symptoms. However, for individuals who are immunocompromised or for pregnant mothers, it can be more serious.
Fortunately, toxoplasmosis from cats is easy to avoid. Cats themselves only pass on the cyst that carries it in their feces, and only then for 1 – 3 weeks after contracting it themselves. Simply avoiding skin to skin contact with the feces will prevent any chance of getting the infection from a cat.
Burgorf, K., Trabjerg, B., et al. “Large-scale study of Toxoplasma and Cytomegalovirus shows an association between infection and serious psychiatric disorders”. In Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. Vol. 79 (2019), pp. 152-158, doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2019.01.026
“CDC – Toxoplasmosis.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, www.cdc.gov/parasites/toxoplasmosis/.
Halonen, S.,Weiss, L. M., In: Garcia H. H. Tanowitz, H. B., Del Bruto, O. H. “Toxoplasmosis”. In The Handbook of Clinical Neurology., Vol. 114 (2013), pp. 125-145, 10.1016/B978-0-444-53490-3.00008-X
Jones, J., Parise, M., Fiore, A.”Neglected Parasitic Infections in the United States: Toxoplasmosis”. In The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. Vol. 90, Issue 5 (2014), pp. 794-799.
Goldstein, E., Abrahamian, F. “Disease Transmitted by Cats”. Microbiology Spectrum, Vol. 90, Issue 5 (2015), doi: 10.1128/microbiolspec.IOL5-0013-2015.
“Zoonotic Disease: What can I catch from My Cat?” Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. 23 July 2018, https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/zoonotic-disease-what-can-i-catch-my-cat.