Stanford University

Working Safely with Felines

Zoonoses are diseases that can be transmitted from an animal to a human. The following guide details the occupational hazards associated with felines, as well as the precautions necessary for minimizing the risk of animal-to-human transmission of diseases.

Disease transmission from human to animal may also be a concern, particularly when working with potentially immunocompromised animals, such as in immunology or oncology experiments. Contacts are provided for further assistance.

How Can I Protect Myself?
  1. When working with cats, take the following protective measures:

    • Always wear gloves and a laboratory coat, or other dedicated protective clothing, such as a scrub suit. In some cases, masks or protective eye wear is also indicated.
    • While working in an animal use area, do not eat, drink, or apply cosmetics.
    • After handling cats, always wash your hands.
    • Unfixed tissues, body fluids, and other materials derived from cats may also pose a risk.

    Contact EH&S at (650) 723-0448 for any concerns or questions you have about working with cats. Contact the Veterinary Service Center at (650) 723-3876 for help with training personnel.

    Note that all personnel working with cats are eligible to enroll in the Laboratory Animal Occupational Health Program (LAOHP). Contact EH&S at (650) 723-0448 for additional information.


If You Work with Felines
  1. Bites and scratches from cats may pose serious health problems through trauma and/or bacterial infection. Cats may also have eneteric bacteria (e.g. salmonella) in their feces, so cage washers and any personnel who clean bedding should always wash their hands with a disinfectant hand soap before leaving the facility.

    Like most mammals, cats shed fur, so anyone with allergies to fur, dander, or animal bedding should wear personal protective clothing to minimize discomfort. Cats may also carry biting insects, such as fleas, so use personal protective equipment.

    The following describes some of the causative agents and potential illnesses associated with cats, along with protective measures, signs of illness, and what to do if an exposure or injury occurs.

    Bartonella Henselae (Cat Scratch Disease)

    What is cat scratch disease?

    Also known as cat scratch fever, this disease is caused by the bacterium Bartonella henselae. The occurrence of CSD is most strongly associated with:

    • owning a kitten, 1 year or younger
    • being licked on the face, scratched, or bitten by a kitten
    • owning a kitten with fleas

    How is CSD spread?

    Fleas may play a role in cat to cat transmission, but not in cat to human transmission. As the name suggests, humans contract CSD after being scratched (or bitten) by an infected cat or kitten. CSD cannot be transmitted from person to person.

    Who is at risk for infection?

    The majority of individuals who contract CSD are under the age of 17, and are usually under the age of 12. People with compromised immune systems, such as AIDS and cancer patients, are most at risk and can become seriously ill if infected with Bordetella.

    Is CSD infection serious?

    Rarely, and almost always for individuals with compromised immune systems, CSD can cause tonsillitis, encephalitis, hepatitis, pneumonia, and other serious illnesses.

    How can I protect myself and the cats in my facility?

    The following precautions can be taken against CSD:

    • Flea control reduces the number of insects capable of transmitting B. henselae from cat to cat, which in turn reduces the reservoir of potentially infecious felines.
    • When working with cats, wear gloves, shoe covers, and long sleeved apparel at all times.
    • People at risk should avoid rough play that may lead to cat scratches.
    • Immediately wash any cat scratches.
    • When a new cat is brought in, select mature cats over kittens.

    What are the signs of CSD infection?

    Typically, a small skin lesion, resembling an insect bite, develops at the site of a cat scratch or a bite, followed within two weeks by swollen lymph nodes and sometimes a fever. The illness is mild and self-limiting in the majority of patients, although it may take some months for the swollen lymph nodes to return to normal.

    What do I do if an exposure or injury occurs?

    Exposure to aerosols, bites, or scratches involving animals, or injuries from objects contaminated with body fluids from animals, require immediate first aid and medical attention. Always notify your supervisor immediately.

    Between 8:00 am and 5:00 pm., proceed to Stanford Occupational Health Clinic at 480 Oak Road, Room B15, 5-5308.

    After 5:00 pm and before 8:00 am., call (650) 723-2670 or proceed to the Stanford Emergency Room, H126 (in the hospital, next to the cafeteria).

    Rabies

    How is rabies spread?

    The rabies virus enters the body through a cut or scratch, or through mucous membranes, such as the lining of the mouth and eyes. From there, it travels to the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). Once the infection is established in the brain, the virus travels down the nerves from the brain and multiplies in many different organs.

    The salivary glands are the most important organs in the spread of rabies from one animal to another. When an infected animal bites another animal, the rabies virus is transmitted in the infected animal’s saliva. Claw scratches from rabid animals are dangerous because animals usually lick their claws. Saliva applied to a mucous membrane, such as the lining of an eyelid, can also be dangerous.

    Bat excreta contain enough rabies virus that people who enter bat-infested caves can catch rabies by breathing in aerosols.

    Who is at risk for infection?

    Anyone who comes into contact with possibly infected animals (especially wild animals) is at risk for infection.

    Is rabies infection serious?

    Once the symptoms of rabies develop, it is 100% fatal. Patients develop difficulty swallowing saliva (hence the term “foaming at the mouth”), and even the sight of water may terrify the patient (hydrophobia). Some patients become agitated and disoriented, while others become paralyzed. Patients either die during this stage of the illness, or go into a coma and die from further complications.

    How can I protect myself?

    Vaccinate animals against the virus. Eliminate exposures to rabid animals, and provide anyone exposed with prompt local treatment of wounds, combined with appropriate passive and active immunization. Veterinarians and researchers at risk of being bitten by wild animals (such as field researchers) should seek pre-exposure vaccination.

    What are the signs of rabies infection?

    The incubation period in humans ranges from five days to more than a year. Two months is the average incubation period.

    Since the disease is fatal once symptoms develop, it is crucial to seek medical attention if you believe you have been exposed to the rabies virus. After the incubation period, there is a period of vague symptoms lasting from two to 10 days. The patient may have a fever, headache, malaise (general sick feeling), decreased appetite, and vomiting. There may also be pain, itching, or numbness and tingling at the site of the wound. More serious symptoms develop after this.

    What do I do if an exposure or injury occurs?

    Exposure to aerosols, bites, or scratches involving animals, or injuries from objects contaminated with body fluids from animals, require immediate first aid and medical attention. Always notify your supervisor immediately.

    Between 8:00 am and 5:00 pm., proceed to Stanford Occupational Health Clinic at 480 Oak Road, Room B15, 5-5308.

    After 5:00 pm and before 8:00 am., call (650) 723-2670 or proceed to the Stanford Emergency Room, H126 (in the hospital, next to the cafeteria).

    Toxoplasmosis

    What is toxoplasmosis?

    Toxoplasmosis is an infection caused by a single-celled parasite named Toxoplasma gondii. More than 60 million people in the United States probably carry the Toxoplasma parasite, but very few have symptoms. Toxoplasma gondii is primarily associated with cats, but it has very low host specificity, and will infect almost any mammal.

    How is toxoplasmosis spread?

    Toxoplasmosis can be spread by hand to mouth contact after gardening, cleaning a cat’s litter box, or touching anything that has come into contact with cat feces. Cats can only spread Toxoplasma in their feces for a few weeks after they are first infected with the parasite.

    Toxoplasmosis can also be contracted by eating raw or partly cooked meat, especially pork, lamb, or venison, or by hand to mouth contact after touching the meat. Women who are pregnant when they first contract toxoplasmosis can pass the infection to their baby. However, women who contract toxoplasmosis more than 6 months before becoming pregnant are not likely to pass the infection to their baby.

    Who is at risk for infection?

    All personnel who work with Toxoplasma gondii are at risk. Babies born to mothers who are exposed to Toxoplasma infection several months before or during pregnancy are at risk for severe disease. Persons with severely weakened immune systems are at greater risk for severe toxoplasmosis. In such cases, an infection that occurred at any time can reactivate and cause severe symptoms, such as damage to the eye or brain.

    Is toxoplasmosis infection serious?

    For people without a healthy immune systems, toxoplasmosis can be very serious, causing eye and lung infections and serious brain lesions that can lead to death. Toxoplasmosis is also a very severe infection for unborn babies, and can result in mental retardation, blindness, or death.

    How can I protect myself?

    • When you garden or do anything outdoors that involves handing soil, wear gloves. Cats, which may pass the parasite in their feces, often use gardens and sandboxes as litter boxes.
    • After working with animals or cleaning their litter boxes, wash hands thoroughly with soap and warm water.
    • When working with infected animals, wear personal protective equipment such as gloves and lab coats.
    • Wear gloves when cleaning litter boxes, and clean litter boxes daily (the parasite found in cat feces needs a few days after being passed to become infectious).
    • If you are planning to become pregnant, you may consider being tested for Toxoplasma.

    What are the signs of toxoplasmosis infection?

    Healthy people who become infected with Toxoplasma gondii often lack symptoms because their immune system keeps the parasite from causing illness. When illness does occur, it is usually mild, with flu-like symptoms (e.g. body aches and fever swollen lymph glands) that can last for several weeks.

    What do I do if an exposure or injury occurs?

    Exposure to aerosols, bites, or scratches involving animals, or injuries from objects contaminated with body fluids from animals, require immediate first aid and medical attention. Always notify your supervisor immediately.

    Between 8:00 am and 5:00 pm., proceed to Stanford Occupational Health Clinic at 480 Oak Road, Room B15, 5-5308.

    After 5:00 pm and before 8:00 am., call (650) 723-2670 or proceed to the Stanford Emergency Room, H126 (in the hospital, next to the cafeteria).


Who Is at Risk for Infection?
  1. Bites or scratches involving cats, or injuries from objects contaminated with body fluids from cats, require immediate medical attention. In these cases, always notify your supervisor.

    Between 8:00 am to 5:00 pm, Monday through Friday, contact the Stanford University Occupational Health Center (SUOHC) at (650) 725-5111 for immediate phone triage and to schedule an urgent drop-in appointment time.

    For immediate, life-threatening injuries, or when SUOHC is closed, go directly to the Stanford University Medical Center Emergency Department.



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