Stray Cat Diseases: What You & Your Cat Can Catch

Whether you're volunteering to help, or adopting your neighborhood stray, understand these common stray cat diseases to keep everyone safe.

Updated October 10, 2023
Man stroking cat's head

There are an estimated 480 million stray cats in the world (yep, that’s a lot), which means your chances of interacting with one are pretty high. Before you cuddle one or bring one into your home, it’s important to know what diseases stray cats can carry. Some of these illnesses can put you or your own pets at risk, but knowing how to take precautions — and what risks you're willing to take — can help keep everyone happier and healthier.

Can Stray Cats Carry Diseases?

"Stray cats are typically more prone to disease than the average house cat," reports Dr. Ann Hohenhaus, DVM, DACVIM (SAIM, Oncology), Chairman of the Department of Medicine at The Animal Medical Center of New York. Why? "A stray is more likely to have never been vaccinated. Malnutrition also weakens a cat's ability to fight off infections and illness," she says. Stray cats are also more likely to encounter other cats and other animals who carry disease compared to an indoor-only feline.

How Can You Tell if a Stray Cat Has a Disease or Infection?

Many stray cats are healthy, but it's hard to tell by just looking whether this is the case. While certain skin conditions, like mange, may be more obvious, conditions like feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) can be present without visible symptoms. If you're considering handling a stray cat — or even rescuing one — it's a great idea to do so by taking precautions, and to get your new feline companion seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible. Your veterinarian can more-easily recognize signs of illness, and will probably want to do blood, urine and stool testing to check for anything that's not obvious. 

Can Stray Cats Give You Diseases?

A street cat lying down in an outdoor alley

A lot of stray cats are actually very healthy, but there are a few conditions and infections cats can have that are transmissible to people as well as other animals. Most zoonotic diseases (a.k.a. conditions that people can catch from animals) aren't that easy to get, but people with compromised immune systems are especially at risk. That said, many cat-rescuers who have weakened immune systems and work with stray cats are able to be around the cats with a few extra precautions. If you're handling stray cats, be sure to assess the risks for yourself and, when in doubt at all, talk to your doctor. 

Some examples of diseases and conditions to protect yourself against include:

  • Fleas and mites: These are insects that can bite you or burrow under your skin.
  • Ringworm: This is a type of fungus that grows on your skin and is most commonly found in children. 
  • Worms: Roundworm and hookworm eggs can be transmitted to humans through contaminated fecal matter, but also by walking barefoot on contaminated earth. 
  • Bartonellosis: Also known as cat scratch fever, can be transmitted by bites or scratches and is one of the more-serious infections you can get from a cat. 
  • Salmonellosis: Cats are rarely carriers of salmonella, but cats and dogs can have the bacteria in their system which can then pass to people. 
  • Cryptosporidiosis: Fairly common in cats, humans can also contract the Crypto parasite via contaminated water and eating undercooked food. 
  • Toxoplasmosis: Many people already carry this parasite, according to the Centers for Disease Control, but it can be extremely dangerous for pregnant women. 
  • Campylobacterosis: Kittens are most likely to carry this. Symptoms in people typically last about a week, according to the State of New York Department of Health.
  • Q Fever: A common bacterial infection in cats that usually clears on its own, but may lead to a more-serious chronic infection in humans. 
  • Rabies: A life-threatening virus people can get from animal bites. 
Fast Fact

"Strays are exposed to a number of health risks on a daily basis," Dr. Hohenhaus says, which is one big reason they're more likely to have diseases versus an indoor-only house cat. 

Can a Feral Cat Make My Cat Sick? 

Humans are immune to a slew of other conditions, which your resident house cat is at risk to catch if you bring a stray into your home. Dr. Hohenhaus also notes, "In my opinion, FeLV/FIV retroviral infections, which are related to cancer and immunosuppression, are some of the most prevalent diseases found in stray cat populations." If you're considering bringing a stray or feral cat home, it's important to separate them in a private area, away from other animals and children until a veterinarian has screened them.

Some conditions that cats can pass to other cats include:

  • Feline leukemia virus (FeLV): This easily transmitted viral infection is passed through saliva and blood and can be deadly to other cats.

  • Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV): It's important to note that FIV is not the same virus as HIV in humans and is not transmissible to people.

  • Respiratory viruses, calicivirus and rhinotracheitis: These viruses are highly infectious and can make cats ill but are not fatal unless there are concurrent medical issues or the affected cat is a kitten or senior.
  • Panleukopenia: Highly contagious and serious, this intestinal infection destroys white blood cells, reducing a cat's ability to fight off opportunistic infections. 
  • Feline enteric coronavirus (FeCV) and Feline infectious peritonitis (FIP): FeCV is highly contagious and, while most cats will shed the infection without trouble, others can develop FIP as a result. FIP is almost always fatal in cats.

How Can I Prevent Disease Transmission From Feral and Stray Cats?

In reality, many people handle stray cats all the time without issue. However, diseases like rabies, toxoplasmosis and q fever can have serious, long term or even fatal consequences, so it's always better to be safe. Many stray cats are healthy, but taking precautions when handling a stray or feral cat will help you and the cat start off on the right paw.

  1. If you are pregnant, have a weakened immune system or have small children in your home, talk to your doctor before taking in or handling any stray animal. Your doctor can discuss your specific situation and you can make an informed decision from there. 
  2. If you intend to keep a feral cat, schedule an appointment with your vet to have them examined and tested for the common stray cat diseases.
  3. Separate them from your cats until they get the all-clear from the vet. You can keep them in a bathroom or guest room for the time being.
  4. Treat the stray or feral cat for fleas right away, if you can. Fleas can travel under doors, so treat all other animals in your home as well. 
  5. Use basic hygiene practices, like handwashing before and after handling any stray cats.
  6. Make sure your resident pets are up to date on their vaccinations.
  7. Change your clothes after petting or handling a stray cat to avoid bringing viruses or parasites to your pets.
  8. Never touch or handle an aggressive cat. If you are bitten, go to your doctor right away.
Quick Tip

Any cat enthusiast with a compromised immune system should discuss pet ownership with both their physician and veterinarian before deciding whether to adopt a cat that is ill.

Trap, Test, Vaccinate, Alter, & Release (TTVAR) Programs

Listening to a Cats Heart

If you discover a stray cat in your neighborhood but can't bring them in as a pet, that's OK. There are still ways you can help to reduce stray cat diseases and the homeless pet population. TTVAR programs focus on catching, vaccinating, and sterilizing feral cats, and then returning them to the streets. According to Dr. Hohenhaus, "Happily, there do not seem to be any major adverse effects for cats in TTVAR programs. Current studies report low risk of anesthetic complications and no major adverse reactions from vaccination." 

Stray and Feral Cats Need a Place to Go

Stray cats will continue to be an issue in the foreseeable future, although TTVAR programs have made strides in reducing the population and increasing the number of vaccinated feral cats. If you'd like to learn more about working to reduce the cat overpopulation problem, visit the Alley Cat Allies' website for resources. Of course, if the stray cat in your neighborhood is vying for a compfy spot in your home, check out these tips for what to do when you find a stray

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Stray Cat Diseases: What You & Your Cat Can Catch