Woman says that she contracted Guillain-Barré syndrome by stroking a stray cat

Gemma on holiday
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Gemma on hols – Image: MDWfeatures / Gemma Birch

Gemma Birch believes that she contracted the very rare Guillain-Barré syndrome because she stroked a stray cat in Albufeira, Portugal in 2014.

She said that she was left paralysed from the hips down after she contracted the bacterial infection from a stray cat. She liked the cat during her holiday at a resort and enjoyed stroking her/him.

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The Mirror newspaper says that the cat carried the potentially deadly infection which left her wheelchair bound for months. Gemma began vomiting on the final day of her holiday. She became faint on the flight home.

She was taken to Southport Hospital where tests revealed that her stool contained the bacteria campylobacter which can be found in raw chicken. In fact campylobacter is often found in undercooked food, especially poultry.

She was discharged from hospital but then had to return because numbness developed in her legs. Doctors then diagnosed Guillain-Barré syndrome. She spent four months in rehab and it took 14 months to get back to normal.

Gemma loves cats but no longer strokes stray cats. The big question is, is she right in believing that this stray cat passed to her this very rare disease? Is the Mirror newspaper right to report with certainty that she caught the disease from a stray cat?

In this article I say that the bacteria which causes the disease is found in raw chicken. I’ll speculate and say that perhaps she ate some undercooked chicken on her holiday. Might that be a more plausible cause? Perhaps not. The report says that the cat caught the infection from feeding in rubbish bins (trash bins). But how was it transmitted?

Could campylobacter be picked up from stroking the cat and then it caused the autoimmune disease? Campylobacter can be found in the gut and faeces (poo) of animals. If it found its way onto the cat’s coat via faeces then stroking the cat could transmit the bacteria to Gemma?

The NHS website tells us that the syndrome is caused by a problem with the immune system. The immune system of people suffering from Guillain-Barré syndrome goes wrong and it attacks the nervous system rather than the bacteria (autoimmune disorder).

They say that it can be triggered by an infection such as food poisoning, flu or cytomegalovirus. It can also be triggered by vaccination (but this is very rare), or surgery, and medical procedures can sometimes cause it.

I’m not sure how doctors decided that she got the disease from the cat. Perhaps the newspaper is wrong as it seems more likely she got it from food poisoning. However, it is an interesting story and I think it is the first time that I have come across this zoonotic disease causing illness in a person from stroking a cat. It must be exceedingly rare.

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Note: sources for news articles are carefully selected but the news is often not independently verified.

Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 74-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare. If you want to read more click here.

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8 Responses

  1. Jan says:

    As a person who suffers from serious auto immune disease the second I started reading I was SMH. In reading this I just wonder how many cats will suffer from this misinformation of information. Do you not think they get blame put on them enough? I also wonder what was this person’s real motive for spreading this misinformation?? If a Doctor really said this they need to take that medical certificate off the wall.

  2. Jan says:

    As a person who suffers from serious auto immune disease the second I started reading I was SMH. In reading this I just wonder how many cats will suffer from this misinformation of information. Do you not think they get blame put on them enough. I also wonder what was this person’s real motive for spreading this misinformation?? If a Doctor realling said this they need to take that medical certificate off the wall.

  3. Frances A Danna says:

    I would say that an occurrence of Guillain-Barre syndrome acquired from stroking a stray cat would be highly impossible to pinpoint or prove in any way. I totally agree with Jane. What motive could Gemma Birch have for making this claim? Ignorance, desperation, or financial? ???

  4. Jane says:

    The Mirror have got this badly wrong.

    G-B is an auto immune disorder, it can sometimes occur after periods of viral or bacterial infection or it can happen spontaneously. It has been known to occur after serious surgery, injury and even chemotherapy.

    It affects the myelin sheath of peripheral neural tissue.

    It is a syndrome, a set of symptoms. It is not a communicable disease. It is not communicable in any way It is a response of the immune system, nothing else.

    It is not zoonotic.

    It is not an infection.

    This woman most likely developed it after the campylobacter infection.

    This is 100% piss poor reporting, even for The Mirror. Does this woman not have any intelligent, rational adults to put her right on this matter? Is she just being a pathetic, compensation seeking snowflake?

    Guillaine-Barre is NOT caused by cats or any other animal.

    I call 100% Fimus tauri on this story.

    • Michael Broad says:

      Thanks Jane. I’ll probably amend the article.

    • Michael Broad says:

      Jane I have amended the article a bit. I added the following (is this right?):

      “Could campylobacter be picked up from stroking the cat and then it caused the autoimmune disease? Campylobacter can be found in the gut and faeces (poo) of animals. If it found its way onto the cat’s coat via faeces then stroking the cat could transmit the bacteria to Gemma?”

      • Jane says:

        Better yes, thanks Michael…

        ….but, I believe that it is most likely to have been picked up via poor food hygiene practice or undercooked meat.

        I have never picked up Campylobacter and I have handle countless cats, many in a filthy condition when they have been badly neglected, injured or sick strays/ferals. I have never come across any cat rescue folk who have noted that they contracted it from a cat either.

        Here is an EG: Half of the UK population are positive for Cytomegalovirus, if a healthy adult picks it up, they might have symptoms of a slight cold, or they might not.

        This woman could have developed GB Syndrome from any number of infections she might have picked up, many are likely to be sub-clinical and all are likely capable of triggering GB symptoms.

        It is *10,000 expletives deleted* immoral of The Mirror (& this attention seeking woman) to be blaming this syndrome on a cat. Any doctor who blamed it on a cat needs some education too.

        The press are just 100% emetic.

        • Michael Broad says:

          Thanks Jane. How is the repair of your computer coming along? 🙂 Hope the week went okay from your health point of view.

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