As is common this time of year, outbreaks of Salmonella infection in wild birds have been widely reported in parts of the US. Salmonella circulates regularly at low levels in the wild bird population, and sporadic outbreaks involving large numbers of sick and dead birds are periodically encountered. These are often noticed in urban areas when dead birds are found around bird feeders.
Salmonella can infect a wide range of species other than birds, including cats (and people). Cats can be exposed to Salmonella during these outbreaks from catching and eating sick birds, or healthy birds that are carriers of the bacterium. In fact, one name for salmonellosis in cats is songbird fever, a testament to the role of birding in feline salmonellosis. An example of the potential effect of wild bird Salmonella outbreaks on cats is described in the The Daily Journal from International Falls, Minnesota. In this report, a local veterinarian explains that he has seen an increase in salmonellosis cases in pets at his practice, mainly in cats. In the past 2 weeks, he has diagnosed approximately 20 cases, which is a pretty impressive number. Most of the infected cats had known contact with wild birds or areas around bird feeders.
If your cat goes outside, it is at higher risk for Salmonella. If there is an outbreak of salmonellosis in wild birds in the area (or you're seeing dead birds around the feeder), then the risks are probably much higher. While Salmonella is usually associated with diarrhea, not all cats that are infected develop diarrhea. Some develop mild disease without diarrhea (e.g. fever, lethargy), some get serious systemic infections (septicemia), and some may show no signs of illness at all but still pass Salmonella in their stool. In any case, the bacterium can still be transmitted to and infect people.
Any outdoor cat that develops diarrhea should be considered a Salmonella suspect. Really, Salmonella should be considered in all outdoor cats with fever and signs of illness that are not specific for a particular disease. Stool culture can be used to diagnose Salmonella.
Avoiding wild-bird associated salmonellosis in cats is pretty easy - keep your cat indoors. A cat that can't catch birds or hang around contaminated areas surrounding bird feeders won't be exposed to Salmonella from wild birds. At a minimum, cats should be kept inside if there is an outbreak of Salmonella in wild birds in the area, or if dead birds are found around your bird feeder. Ideally, they should be kept inside all of the time, for many reasons.
More information about Salmonella in pets can be found on the Worms & Germs Resources page.