A paper in the Journal of Neurooncology (Redelman-Sidi et al, 2011) describes "kitten-transmitted Bordetella bronchiseptica infection" in a cancer patient. The patient in question had a brain tumour that was surgically removed. The 56-year-old man was then started on chemotherapy, which in addition to killing cancer cells can also cause significant impairment of the immune system, which puts chemotherapy patients at high risk for infections of many kinds. This particular patient developed a persistent cough during treatment and was eventually diagnosed with B. bronchiseptica infection. This bacterium is one of the causes of kennel cough in dogs, and can cause respiratory infections in other species, including cats.

The man had acquired a kitten three weeks before he developed the cough. The kitten had (at some undefined time) conjuncitivitis and signs of respiratory disease. Unfortunately, as is too often the case in reports of supposed pet-associated disease in the medical literature, the kitten was not actually tested.  Bordetella bronchiseptica is classically an animal-associated organism, the kitten was newly acquired and it had respiratory disease.  These factors strongly suggests the kitten was the source.  However, without testing of the kitten and investigation of other potential sources of infection, it’s hard to be as definitive as the title suggests. The suspicion of the kitten being the origin is reasonable nonetheless.

Some statements from this report are contrary to my typical recommendations for pets and immunocompromised individuals.

Getting a young animal

  • Kittens and puppies are entertaining, but they are also higher-risk animals compared to adult dogs and cats. They are more likely to harbour a variety of infectious agents. They are also more likely to bite or scratch through playful or rambunctious behaviour, and it’s harder to properly assess their temperament. If an immunocompromised person wants to get a new pet, getting an mature animal is ideal.

Source of the kitten

  • The paper unfortunately doesn’t mention from where the kitten was obtained and whether there was a respiratory disease problem in other animals at the source. Animals in shelters, humane societies and pet stores are more likely to carry various infectious diseases because they are densely populated facilities, often have infection control challenges, house many high-risk animals and are stressful environments. Getting new animals from these places is not ideal for a high-risk person.

Veterinary care

  • The kitten had signs of respiratory disease and was seen be a veterinarian. It doesn’t appear that any testing was done and the kitten was just treated with antibiotics. That’s pretty common, but in a situation where there is a high-risk person in the house, it’s wise to be more aggressive with diagnostic testing to determine whether there may be any concerns for the person.

A pet can be a wonderful thing for a person living cancer, by providing social and emotional support, along with other benefits. Pet ownership always carries some risk of zoonotic infections, and the risk is higher in people with compromised immune systems. Rarely, if ever, is pet ownership inappropriate for a cancer patient, although certain pets and certain situations might be, and high-risk individuals need to think about possible risks and measures to reduce those risks.

People with cancer or other problems affecting their immune system should ensure that their physician knows that they own pets. Veterinarians need to play a role as a member of the overall healthcare team too. Optimizing pet health can help reduce the risk of human infection. Prompt and proper diagnostic testing can identify potential issues. Proper counseling can reduce risky situations from inappropriate pets, inappropriate contacts and other factors that might make exposure to a nasty infection from a pet more likely.