I was reading an interesting old paper the other day about Q-fever in cats. Q-fever is a zoonotic disease caused by Coxiella burnetii. It is most commonly associated with contact with sheep, cattle and to a lesser extent goats, around the time they give birth. This bacterium is highly infectious – it only takes a small number of bacteria to cause disease. (That’s one of the reasons it’s classified as an important bioterrorism agent).

While most of the focus in on ruminants, there have also been many reports of Q-fever associated with cats, also mainly through contact with these animals around the time they give birth.  Cats may be the most important Q-fever reservoir in urban areas.

The study I was reading, a 1988 article from the journal Chest, describes a Q-fever outbreak in a town in Nova Scotia. Thirty-three people were infected in the town of Baddeck (population 900, meaning 2.8% of the population was affected). Forty-two percent of infected individuals lived in four side-by-side buildings. Investigation revealed that most infected people had contact with a cat that have given birth to stillborn kittens (stillbirths are common in cats infected with Coxiella). The cat lived in one of the four buildings and regularly visited neighbouring buildings.

This is just one of many reports of Q-fever associated with cats. Almost all involve direct contact or being in the vicinity of cats around the time of birth. Since this bacterium is so infectious, and can even be spread through the air through aerosols (e.g.dust, tiny droplets of fluid), direct contact (e.g actually touching the cat) is not required for infection to occur.

That being said, cat-associated Q-fever is probably still pretty uncommon, but Q-fever can be a very serious disease. Since transmission mostly involves cats at the time of birthing, a few basic measures should be able to greatly reduce the risks:

  • Avoid contact with cats that are giving birth or who have done so recently.
  • Avoid contact with newborn kittens and areas contaminated during the birthing process.
  • If your cat is going to give birth, try to have it do so in a well-ventilated area away from areas where people spend time and away from areas where food is prepared.
  • If contact with the mother cat, kittens or areas/items contamination with birth fluids is likely to occur, gloves should be worn. Hands should be washed after gloves are removed.
  • If a cat gives birth inside, the area should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected afterwards. Gloves should be worn for this.
  • The risks are probably higher with stray cats (who are more likely to be infected), so extra care should be taken to avoid contact with stray cats around the time of birth.

More information about Q-fever can be found in the Worms & Germs archives.