The Truth About Touching A Stray Cat And Getting A Disease

Touching a stray cat could in some circumstances lead to various diseases. These include campylobacteriosis, transmitted through contact with infected feces; toxoplasmosis, also spread through feces; rabies, which can spread through bites or scratches; ringworm, a fungal infection transmitted through direct contact; and cat scratch disease (CSD), caused by bacteria from a cat’s scratch or lick. Additionally, diseases like sporotrichosis, tularemia, MRSA, and hookworm can be contracted from cats through various means like bites, scratches, or direct contact. It’s essential to practice good hygiene and seek medical attention if bitten or scratched​​​​.

Let’s discuss this topic in more detail in the paragraphs below…

There is a lot of fear about stray cats among the general public. Some of it is justified, but much of it is not. A case in point is the fear of disease. One of the first things people think of when they encounter a stray or feral cat is the possibility that the animal might be sick. That fear translates into a reluctance to offer assistance out of an abundance of caution. After all, no one wants to catch a disease after coming in contact with a stray. Nevertheless, can you get a disease from touching a stray cat?

Yes, you can theoretically catch a disease from touching a stray cat. However – and this is a big however – such cases are extremely rare. Merely coming in contact with a cat doesn’t put you at undue risk of catching a disease. If you get scratched, bitten or licked, that is an entirely different matter altogether. But simple touching is safe in most cases.

Below is a list of of the six most common feline diseases exhibited by both stray and feral cats. With the exception of rabies and bartonellosis, you do not have much to worry about should a stray cat in your neighborhood have one of these diseases. Obviously, you might consider taking the animal to the vet if you are at all concerned about its health.

Key Takeaways

  1. While it is theoretically possible to catch a disease from a stray cat, the chances are extremely low.
  2. Many stray cats are healthy, but the longer a cat lives on the streets, the higher the chances are of contracting a disease.
  3. The prevalence of diseases in stray cats can vary depending on geographic location, climate, and local cat population health.
  4. Rabies is a serious concern with stray cats, but it is almost always fatal and cannot be treated.
  5. Fleas and tapeworms are common among stray cats and pose a risk of making a dog sick if ingested.
  6. Good hygiene practices and preventative medications can help protect dogs from disease transmission.
  7. Aggressive strays should be avoided, and handling them should be left to professionals.
  8. Awareness and community response are important for the wellbeing of stray cats and dogs in the neighborhood.

Prevalence of Diseases in Stray Cats

It’s important to clarify from the outset that not every stray cat is a walking harbinger of disease. In fact, many strays, especially those that have only recently lost their homes, are often quite healthy. However, the longer a cat lives on the streets, exposed to the elements, parasites, other stray animals, and inadequate nutrition, the higher the chances are for them to contract a disease.

Prevalence of Diseases Varies

According to various studies, the prevalence of diseases in stray cats can vary significantly depending on geographic location, climate, and the local cat population’s general health. For instance, Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) and Feline Leukemia (FeLV) are estimated to affect roughly 2 to 4% of the cat population in North America, but the rates are higher in stray cats, with estimates ranging from 4.7% to 18% for FIV and 3.4% to 12% for FeLV.

Toxoplasmosis Risk

Similarly, toxoplasmosis, a parasitic disease, can be found in approximately 30% to 40% of cats at some point in their lives, but in most cases, the cats’ immune systems eliminate the infection. The likelihood of a cat carrying toxoplasmosis also varies depending on its age, diet, and lifestyle, with stray and outdoor cats having a higher risk due to potential consumption of infected rodents or birds.

When it comes to Bartonellosis, commonly known as cat scratch disease, research has found that up to 40% of cats may carry the bacteria at some point, especially kittens and strays who are more likely to have fleas.

Feared Zoonotic Disease

Rabies, perhaps the most feared zoonotic disease, is relatively rare in cats, but stray and feral cats still represent a significant portion of domestic animals reported with rabies, primarily due to less frequent vaccination and higher exposure to rabid wildlife.

So, while the numbers might seem alarming, it’s critical to remember that not all stray cats carry diseases, and even those that do aren’t guaranteed to pass them to humans or other pets. Adequate preventive measures and proper care can significantly reduce the risks, as we’ll explore in the upcoming sections.

Zoonotic Diseases and Human Health Risks

Zoonotic diseases, sometimes also known as zoonoses, are illnesses that can be transmitted from animals to humans. They can be caused by all types of pathogens – viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites. While most interactions with animals, including stray cats, pose minimal risk, there is always a chance that a disease can jump from them to us, especially when we don’t take necessary precautions.

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In the context of stray cats, diseases such as toxoplasmosis, bartonellosis, and even rabies are zoonotic and can pose a risk to human health. While the risk is typically low, especially for healthy adults, certain populations like pregnant women, the elderly, and individuals with compromised immune systems might be at a higher risk.

Transmission Methods

Zoonotic diseases can be transmitted in a number of ways. Direct contact, such as touching or petting a cat, can potentially lead to disease transmission, especially if the animal carries pathogens on its skin or fur. Indirect transmission can occur through contact with areas where the animal has been, such as bedding or sandboxes, or through vectors like ticks and fleas that have fed on an infected cat. The risk is especially high if there’s an exchange of bodily fluids, such as through a bite or scratch.

Ingesting contaminated water or food, particularly if it has been exposed to cat feces, can also lead to certain diseases like toxoplasmosis. The risk of airborne transmission, though, is generally lower.

Prevention Measures

Prevention is key when it comes to zoonotic diseases. Basic hygiene, like washing hands thoroughly after interacting with stray cats or any other animals, is the first and most effective line of defense. Using gloves when handling strays or cleaning litter boxes, particularly in public areas, can provide an additional layer of protection.

Furthermore, keeping your own pets vaccinated and free of parasites can indirectly protect you by reducing the risk of diseases in the local stray population. If you are adopting a stray cat, a visit to the vet for a thorough health check-up, appropriate vaccinations, and de-worming can significantly lower the risks.

However, while these measures can significantly reduce risk, they cannot eliminate it completely. Therefore, individuals who are at a higher risk should take extra precautions and consult healthcare professionals when interacting with stray or feral cats.

Common Cat Diseases

1. Feline Immunodeficiency Virus

This immunodeficiency disease is the result of a virus contracted by the cat. Interestingly enough, most cats that contract the virus do not begin to show symptoms until years later. And even at that, the symptoms they do exhibit are related to other diseases that afflict the animal once its immune system is severely weakened.

Humans are not at risk from feline immunodeficiency virus. Caring for a cat with this illness, in a stress-free and safe environment, usually allows the animal to live a comfortable life for its remaining months or years. Depending on when the cat contracted the virus, it could reach a normal lifespan.

2. Feline Leukemia

Feline leukemia is another immunodeficiency disease contracted as the result of a virus. Many people confuse this disease with feline immunodeficiency virus, but they are distinctly different conditions. The most important difference between the two is that cats that contract feline leukemia usually die within a few years of being diagnosed.

Feline leukemia is not dangerous to humans. However, it is the leading cause of death in cats. The feline leukemia virus severely compromises the animal’s immune system. It also causes anemia and lymphoma as well. The good news is that upwards of 70% of cats that do not exhibit persistent infections leading to diagnosis also don’t die of the disease. Their bodies are able to eradicate the virus over time.

3. Toxoplasmosis

Toxoplasmosis is a disease you have to be worried about with stray cats. It is unlikely you would contract the disease merely by touching a stray, but your chances of contracting it increase if you come in contact with the feces of the infected animal. Note that toxoplasmosis is an infection related to one of the most common parasites in the world, known as gondii parasite.

Cats suffering with toxoplasmosis tend to be lethargic and depressed. They may also exhibit respiratory problems, a lack of coordination, and possibly even seizures and tremors. Unless you were familiar with the cat in question, you might not even recognize the symptoms. If you suspect a stray cat might be infected, observe it for a day or so before taking action.

A human who contracts toxoplasmosis may not exhibit any symptoms. Especially in healthy people, the human immune system is usually strong enough to deal with the infection on its own. When symptoms do develop, the most common are body aches, headache, fever, fatigue, and swollen lymph nodes.

In more severe cases, toxoplasmosis can lead to complications including loss of coordination, blurred vision, and confusion. Treatment is fairly successful with one of two drugs the doctor might prescribe.

4. Bartonellosis (a.k.a. cat scratch fever)

This is another disease that can be transferred to humans but, again, casual contact is not likely to be the culprit. Bartonellosis is called cat scratch fever for a reason: humans typically contract the disease after being scratched or bitten. Although rare, it is possible to contract bartonellosis just by being licked by a cat.

In cats, the common symptoms of bartonellosis include conjunctivitis, swollen lymph nodes, breathing troubles (bronchitis), fever, and pneumonia. Despite the somewhat scary sound of such symptoms, most cats suffering from this disease don’t exhibit serious symptoms. To them, it’s like having the common cold.

Humans exhibit flu-like symptoms after contracting the disease. Low grade fever, swollen lymph nodes, and a rash or pustules at the transmission site are routine. Healthy individuals normally do not need any medical intervention as their bodies will address the issue via natural immune response. In cases where medical intervention is required, simple antibiotics usually do the trick.

5. Ringworm

Ringworm sounds a lot scarier to human beings than it actually is. It is another potential disease you might find in a stray cat that is harmless to humans. Ringworm is a fungal infection – not a worm – that is passed from animal to animal through close contact with one another or infected food dishes and bedding.

Cats infected with ringworm are usually diagnosed as a result of patchy hair loss. In those areas of hair loss, red rings may be observed. A cat suffering from ringworm will typically show patches on the head, around the ears, and on the forelimbs.

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The biggest concern with ringworm is how easily it spreads. Although it is not dangerous to humans, we can be carriers of the fungus from one animal to the next. That’s why it’s so important to handle a cat with care if you suspect it has the disease. Any fungus transferred to your skin or clothes can then be transferred to other animals in your home.

Also be aware that the spores that cause ringworm can live for up to a year following transmission. This makes it very difficult to eradicate the disease once it has taken hold in a home. Be very careful with a stray cat if you have any reason to believe it might be infected. If you absolutely must handle the animal, wash yourself thoroughly before you come in contact with any other pets in your home.

In terms of treatment, veterinarians prescribe different methods depending on the seriousness of the infection. Minor infections may be treated with an anti-fungal shampoo or ointment. More serious cases might require an oral medication. Ringworm typically has to be treated for several months to guarantee its eradication.

6. Rabies

The last disease on our list is the big one many people are afraid of: rabies. The bad news about rabies and stray cats is that it is almost always fatal. By the time a cat was to be diagnosed with the disease, it would be too late to treat the animal.

The disease is passed from one animal to another by way of saliva. Stray cats that exhibit evidence of having been in a fight with another cat are at risk of rabies.

On the positive side, remember that most stray cats are pets that either wandered away from home or were abandoned. This is good because household pets are often inoculated against rabies at some point in their lives. Provided the animal was up to date with its shots when first exposed to rabies, the chances of contracting it are minimal.

Having said that, rabies is dangerous to human beings. It is also transmitted to us rather easily. You can contract rabies from an infected cat by being bitten or allowing the animal’s saliva to come in contact with an area of broken skin. If you do contract rabies, you will need a series of inoculations to prevent getting sick yourself.

Cats infected with rabies exhibit strange behaviors that should be easy to recognize. An infected cat will act disoriented and strangely cautious. The animal might show signs of aggression or restlessness, along with increased vocalization. In the later stages of the disease, paralysis and seizures are common.

Difference Between Stray and Feral Cats

At this juncture it might be prudent to discuss the differences between stray cats and feral cats as it affects the chances of catching a disease. It’s a common misconception that all cats roaming freely outdoors are one and the same, but that’s not quite accurate. Understanding the difference between stray and feral cats can help us engage with these animals in a more empathetic and informed way.

Stray Cats

Stray cats are domesticated animals that have been lost or abandoned. They are used to human contact and may seek out people for food, shelter, or companionship. Stray cats often adapt to life on the streets, but they usually retain their socialization to humans. You may see them during the day, and they might even approach you, especially if you offer food.

Strays have usually been vaccinated and spayed or neutered at some point, which reduces the risk of transmitting certain diseases. However, since they are now living outside without regular veterinary care, they may contract and spread other diseases more commonly found in outdoor environments.

Feral Cats

In contrast, feral cats are essentially wild animals. They were either born and raised in the wild without human interaction or have lived outside long enough to revert to a wild state. These cats are usually very wary of people and will run away if approached.

Feral cats live in family groups called colonies and tend to stay hidden from humans, so they’re often out and about in the early morning and late evening when fewer people are around. These cats have had less, if any, access to veterinary care, including vaccinations and spay/neuter services, and therefore could potentially carry more diseases.

Understanding the different needs and behaviors of stray and feral cats is crucial to their wellbeing and your safety. Stray cats can often be re-homed, while feral cats are typically happier living in their outdoor colonies with human support in the form of a managed Trap-Neuter-Return program. Remember, both stray and feral cats can lead healthy, fulfilling lives with a bit of compassion and understanding from us.

Prevention and Treatment in Cats

First and foremost, if you’re considering adopting or regularly interacting with stray cats, remember that prevention is always better than cure. One crucial step to consider is vaccination. Stray cats should be vaccinated against the most common and dangerous diseases, including FIV, FeLV, rabies, and others. While vaccinations can’t completely eliminate the risk, they significantly decrease the likelihood of the cat contracting these illnesses.


When it comes to vaccinations, consider reaching out to a local veterinarian to develop a suitable vaccination schedule. Different vaccines have different timing and requirements, so professional guidance is essential. In some cases, vets might also recommend booster shots at certain intervals to ensure long-term immunity.

Regular Vet Check-ups

Beyond vaccinations, regular veterinary check-ups are also indispensable. These routine visits help detect any potential health issues early, increasing the chances of successful treatment. Regular check-ups can also help manage common issues in stray cats such as fleas, ticks, and worms.

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Preventive Care

Preventive care goes beyond medical interventions. Keeping the cat’s living environment clean, feeding it a balanced diet, and regular grooming can go a long way in maintaining their overall health. Furthermore, ensuring that the cat is spayed or neutered can prevent a range of health and behavioral issues.

Remember, bringing a stray cat into your life can be a fulfilling experience, but it comes with responsibilities. By taking these proactive steps, you’re not only protecting the health of the cat but also ensuring your safety and the wellbeing of your household.

Handle Stray Cats with Care

Now that we have gone through all the potential diseases a stray cat may have, it is time to talk about prevention. Again, remember that getting sick merely from touching a stray cat is extremely rare. Among the diseases you can catch, they all require something more than just casual contact.

The rule of the day for preventing disease is to simply handle stray cats with care. Never approach a stray cat under the assumption that it is completely healthy. It is always better to be safe than sorry. If the animal does not display any visible signs of disease, you may proceed with caution. As you get closer, look for anything out of the ordinary.

Any physical contact with a stray cat should be followed by thorough hand washing. If the animal came in contact with your clothes, you might consider washing them as well – especially if the animal showed any signs of ringworm. Definitely wear gloves if you see patches of lost hair with red rings in the center.

In the unlikely event you do catch something after coming in contact with a stray cat, don’t hesitate to see your own doctors as soon as possible. Neither bartonellosis nor toxoplasmosis are cause for panic, but you should still be treated anyway. As for rabies, that is a different matter. Early treatment of rabies virtually guarantees you will not get sick. But if rabies is left untreated, it can be fatal.

Approaching and Handling Stray Cats

When interacting with stray cats, safety and understanding are paramount. Unlike domesticated pets, stray cats are not accustomed to human contact and may react unpredictably. However, with patience and caution, it’s possible to establish a rapport with these felines.

Recognizing Signs of Stress or Aggression

Stray cats can show signs of stress or aggression in a variety of ways. A sudden change in body language, like a rigid body or puffed-up fur, can be an early warning. Look for more pronounced signs such as hissing, growling, or showing of teeth. An aggressively arched back, flattened ears, or a thrashing tail can also indicate fear or hostility. Averting their gaze or retreating are signals that they’re feeling threatened and it’s best to back off.

Proper Protective Clothing and Equipment

When you decide to interact with a stray cat, it’s crucial to wear the right attire. Long-sleeved tops and pants can protect your skin from potential scratches or bites. Gloves can be particularly useful if you plan on touching the cat. While cats generally don’t pose a significant risk to humans, these precautions are necessary to protect against the unlikely event of disease transmission.

When to Call a Professional

If a cat appears sick, injured, or particularly aggressive, it’s best to call a professional. Animal control or a local cat rescue organization will have the necessary training and equipment to safely handle the situation. Attempting to catch or treat an unwell or hostile cat could put both you and the cat at unnecessary risk.

While these guidelines are helpful, remember that every stray cat is unique and may not follow the ‘usual’ behaviors. It’s important to be patient, respect the cat’s boundaries, and never force an interaction. Ultimately, your safety and the welfare of the cat are the top priorities.

Role of Animal Control and Rescue Groups

Understanding the Role of Animal Control Agencies

Often misunderstood or wrongly feared, Animal Control Agencies are key actors in managing stray and feral cat populations in our communities. Their role is not only to enforce local animal-related ordinances but also to ensure the safety of both animals and people. When it comes to stray cats, they provide essential services such as capturing sick or injured cats, managing potentially aggressive felines, and sometimes, assisting with trapping-neutering-returning (TNR) programs.

If you come across a sick stray cat, contacting your local animal control agency can be the most responsible course of action. They have the training and equipment necessary to handle potentially dangerous situations and to provide the cat with immediate medical care. It’s crucial to remember that even if a stray cat seems friendly, it might behave unpredictably if it’s feeling unwell or frightened, and handling it could put both you and the cat at risk.

Importance of Rescue Groups

In addition to animal control, Rescue Groups play a significant role in managing stray cat populations. These non-profit organizations, often staffed by dedicated volunteers, focus on rescuing animals in need, providing them with medical care, and finding them loving homes.

For stray cats, this often involves rehabilitation – helping the cat adjust from life on the streets to living in a home. Rescue groups also often participate in TNR programs, helping to control the population of feral cats in a humane way.

If you are considering adopting a stray cat, reaching out to a rescue group could be an excellent first step. They can provide advice and support to ensure that you’re able to offer the cat a safe and loving home, while also taking necessary precautions to protect your own health.

Remember, both animal control agencies and rescue groups work with the common goal of safeguarding animals and people. Cooperation with them not only benefits the individual cat you might find but also contributes to broader efforts to manage and care for the stray and feral cat populations in your community.

Can You Get a Disease from Touching a Stray Cat – Conclusion

And there you have it: everything you have ever wanted to know about stray cats and the potential for disease. The information provided in this guide gives you additional reasons to think long and hard about how you’ll handle a stray cat found hanging around your house.

Stray cats can make very good pets under the right conditions. But they can also be a big source of trouble. Where disease is concerned, taking in a stray cat may leave you with expensive vet bills you’re not prepared to pay. If that doesn’t bother you and you’re not afraid of getting sick yourself, that’s fine. Disease is not something you are concerned about. On the other hand, any concerns you have about disease are sufficient reason to be cautious around a stray.

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