Last Updated on March 15, 2021 by Julia Wilson
Every day your cat’s paws come into contact with the surrounding environment, which can transfer pathogens onto the paws as well as pathogens from the floor onto surfaces. But how dirty are a cat’s paws and how does this contamination occur in the first place?
Organisms are living life forms that include parasites, protozoa, bacteria and fungi and are everywhere, in the air, on surfaces, floors as well as in and on our bodies. Viruses are also everywhere but are not technically living, however, for the sake of ease, are included in the above definition of an organism.
Our immune system does a good job keeping most organisms in check. Many organisms are not harmful to humans or animals, in fact, our bodies contain a flora of helpful bacteria on the skin as well as the intestinal and genital tracts which help to digest food as well as keep pathogenic (disease-causing organisms) in check.
Pathogens on shoes and paws
Good Morning America (GMA) carried out tests on the soles of 8 people and the paws of two dogs found 66 million organisms on one person’s shoes, while Dr. Charles Gerba, microbiologist and professor at the University of Arizona found nine different species of bacteria on shoes including E. coli, Klebsiella pneumonia and Serratia ficaria. As far as I can ascertain, there has been no research on how dirty cat paws are.
Cat paws come into contact with the floor at home, which can contain pathogens introduced via our shoes, and outdoor cats are exposed to pathogens in the environment. Parasitic worm eggs are excreted via the feces of the infected host into the environment where they can be picked up on the soles of shoes, bare feet or animal paws who are allowed to free roam.
The two dogs in the GMA test came in fifth and ninth place for contamination, one dog had been walking in the rain which may have affected results, but the paws are smaller than human feet, and therefore carry fewer germs.
Where does this leave cats?
Our cat’s paws come into contact with the floor of their home as well as the environment (if free-roaming) where they can pick up dirt and pathogens. Cats can also inadvertently contaminate their paws while burying feces in the litter tray and track litter. Young children who are crawling are at increased risk as their hands are frequently on the ground and toddlers haven’t learned to keep their hands out of their mouth. On the flip side, children exposed to household germs, pet dander and roach allergens during the first twelve months of life have a lower risk of developing allergies and asthma.
One potential risk to people is toxoplasma gondii a protozoan parasite (and not a bacterium, as it is often referred to). Cats are the definitive hosts, which means the parasite is only able to reproduce in the cat, but it can infect other species, including human. If a pregnant woman is infected for the first time during pregnancy, the parasite can cause birth defects in the developing fetus. T. Gondii oocysts are shed in the feces and are can survive months or years in the environment. The good news is that oocysts do not become infective for 1-5 days in the environment. Removing feces from litter trays twice a day reduces the risk of transmission greatly. Cats who roam outside have a higher incidence of contact with infective oocysts.
One of the appeals of cats is that they are fastidious groomers, and spend a considerable amount of their waking time cleaning themselves.
Are cats a risk?
Potentially, yes, but looking at it objectively, the risk is minute. Most of us aren’t crawling on the floor and putting our hands in our mouths. There is also a potential risk if cats walk on kitchen benches where food is prepared.
Bear in mind, there is a bigger risk of us bringing home pathogens and parasites on the soles of our shoes than the risk to our cats, and zoonotic infection (diseases transmitted from animals to humans) is not common among people with healthy immune systems.
- Regularly treat your cat for internal and external parasites
- Keep cats indoors to prevent roaming and hunting
- Clean litter trays at least twice a day and empty, disinfect and refill with clean litter once a week
- Keep cats off kitchen benches (easier said than done) and if they do climb onto benches, disinfect before you prepare food
- Take your shoes off when you arrive home and wear indoor-only slippers around the home
- Regularly sweep or vacuum floors and mop