Various bacteria that can cause diarrhea in people can be carried by kittens, including Salmonella and Campylobacter. These are shed in the stool of infected animals, and people can become ill from handling the animal or stool-contaminated areas. Kittens may have higher rates of carriage of these bacteria than adult cats. Another bacterium that can be carried commonly by kittens is Bartonella henselae, the cause of cat scratch disease. This is transmitted by bites, scratches and fleas, and is just one reason for proper flea control.
Stray kittens are also more likely to carry Toxoplasma, a parasite that is a concern in pregnant women and immunocompromised individuals. Other intestinal parasites such a roundworms are also a concern. Kittens are more likely to have these parasites than adult cats. Stool contamination of the haircoat is presumably more common in kittens as well because they are not as good about cleaning themselves as adult cats. So just handling a kitten, even if you avoid its stool, may result in exposure to some of these parasites and bacteria.
Rabies is always a concern, and widespread exposure of people to rabies has occurred from infected litters of kittens. While uncommon, rabies is a major concern because it is almost invariably fatal. Any stray (or recently rescued) animal that starts acting strangely should be considered a rabies-suspect and be taken to a vet immediately. [More information on rabies, and other topics, is available in our Resources page].
Stray kittens can also carry various infectious diseases that can be transmitted to other cats in the household, such as feline leukemia virus, panleukopenia, rhinotracheitis and calicivirus.
Overall, the risks from adopting stray kittens are low, but they are real. If you are going to adopt/rescue a stray kitten, keep these things in mind:
- Take the kitten to your vet as soon as possible to identify any health issues and determine the required vaccination, deworming and flea control program
- Wash your hands after handling the new kitten
- Keep the new kitten in a confined area while litterbox training is underway to reduce accidents throughout the house
- If you have another cat, make sure it is up-to-date on vaccinations before the kitten comes into the house.
- If the kitten gets sick, make sure it is taken to a vet. If it dies suddenly, make sure you take it to your vet to determine whether testing for rabies is required.
- Pregnant women and households with immunocompromised individuals should not adopt stray kittens.