Millions of Americans have conditions that compromise their immune system, including diabetes, kidney failure, HIV, autoimmune disease, organ transplants, and cancer. An immunocompromised patient’s immune system is weakened either by the disease, or by the drugs used to treat the disease. As a result, these individuals have a reduced ability to fight off opportunistic infections which would normally not affect a healthy person.
Numerous studies have shown that pets have a beneficial effect on human health, most physicians now agree that by following simple, common sense guidelines, immunocompromised patients can minimize the risk of infection without having to give up their feline family members.
Diseases transmitted from animals to humans are called zoonoses. The most common diseases that may pose a threat to humans are intestinal infections caused by salmonella and Campylobacter or Cryptospiridium bacteria, cat scratch disease, which is caused by the Bartonella bacteria, and toxosplasmosis, which is caused by the Toxoplasma gondii parasite. Two fungal diseases, dermatomycosis (also called ringworm) and sporotrichosis, are also zoonotic and may cause infections of the skin in humans. Cat bites and scratches also pose a risk of infection.
Simple precautions minimize the risk of infection.
Keep cats indoors
Keeping cats indoors minimizes the risk of them catching diseases from birds, mice or other animals.
Practice safe food handling for all cat food
Wash off all surfaces and utensils that touched the food. Don’t prepare any other food on the same surface until it has been thoroughly cleaned. Wash your hands with soap and warm water after handling cat food.
Litter box maintenance
Litter boxes should be scooped daily. If at all possible, have someone else perform this task. If that’s not an option, wear disposable gloves and wash your hands with soap and warm water afterwards. Bernadette DeLamar, an ovarian cancer survivor, shares her home with two cats. “I live alone,” says Bernadette, “so I had to develop strategies to deal with the daily necessities of cat care while I was going through chemotherapy.” Bernadette had a good friend stop by once a week to clean the litter boxes. “In between visits, I donned a mask and rubber gloves and scooped the boxes myself,” she says.
Bites and scratches
Cat bites present the greatest risk for infection even in healthy individuals. Most pet cats will only bite under extreme circumstances. Immunocompromised patients should never try to break up a cat fight, or handle an injured or frightened cat.
Cat claws should be kept trimmed to avoid getting scratched. Do not declaw your cat. Cats who no longer have their claws will turn to biting instead if they feel a need to defend themselves, and bites pose a far more serious human health risk than scratches. ”Human health authorities like the CDC and US Public Health Services don’t even mention declawing in their comprehensive document of living with companion animals after having an organ transplant,” says Jennifer Conrad, a California veterinarian and founder of The Paw Project, whose mission is to educate the public about the painful and crippling effects of declawing and abolish the practice of declaw surgery.
Kate Benjamin, the founder and publisher of Hauspanther and a breast cancer survivor, shares her home with eleven cats. “As a breast cancer survivor now suffering from lymphedema in my right arm and hand, I find myself being hyper-vigilant about any cat scratches in the affected area,” she says. Because Kate’s immune system is compromised as a result of the lymphedema, any puncture wounds pose a more serious threat of infection. “I’m careful to keep the cats’ nails trimmed,” adds Kate, “and if I do get scratched, I make sure to thoroughly clean the wound and seek medical care if there is any sign of infection.”
Work in partnership with your veterinarian
Regular veterinary exams will ensure that your cat is in good health. Elizabeth Colleran, DVM, a feline veterinarian and owner of two cat hospitals, recommends that immunocompromised clients make sure that cats are regularly checked for intestinal parasites and treated if necessary, and to prevent external parasites with a reliable preventive product.
Dr. Colleran, a cancer survivor herself, feels that the most important message to convey to cat guardians is that being immunocompromised does not mean giving up their beloved cats. “I didn’t and, when I was undergoing chemotherapy, my oncologist didn’t advise it,” says Colleran. “He and I both knew that having someone who brings joy to your life, gives purpose and meaning, and needs to be nurtured are all part of both tolerating awful symptoms and recovery.”
Bernadette DeLamar echoes Dr. Colleran’s experience. Bernadette’s two cats were her greatest solace during treatment, and she can’t imagine what it would have been like going through the experience without them. “My cats became little nursing assistants during the long months my immune system was compromised,” she says. “When I was feeling poorly and restless in bed at night, the older cat would climb up and would rest his paws on my shoulder, tuck his nose under my chin, and purr until I calmed down. The younger one would come up and lean on my pillow. They had never, ever done this before!”
This article was first published in the December 2015/January 2016 issue of Animal Wellness Magazine, and is reprinted with permission.