Domestic cats often instinctively lick their human caregiver on the hand and sometimes the face. It is called allogrooming. It is a friendly behavior that we see between cat buddies and as cats see us as buddies because we care for them, they lick us too. There are some other reasons why cats lick us such as enjoying the taste of our perspiration and to grab our attention but the primary reason is an act friendship. Often it is a response to their human stroking them which they regard as being licked by their mother.
Obviously, cat’s saliva is deposited on the hand. Cat saliva contains bacteria as does human saliva. Cat saliva is no worse than human saliva in this respect. However, although fairly rare, cat scratch disease (CSD) can be given to their owner in a friendly lick to their hand if the skin is broken. A bacterium in the cat’s saliva called Bartonella hensalae, can be deposited inside the minor hand wound and cause the CSD infection. Older people whose immune system is weakened are more at risk.
Dogs v. cats and tapeworms
A cat licking the face might also lead to the transmission of the disease from cat to human. This is rare but a cat owner might like to take precautions. Sidebar: dogs lick their owner’s face far more often than cats. Why? Because cats are a little more fearful about approaching their owner’s face. They tend to be more cautious about putting their face near their owner’s face. Dogs can transmit a host of pathogens to their owner when they lick the face which can enter the human body through the mouth or around the eyes; openings in the human face to the interior of the body.
It is said that a parasitic infestation such as a tapeworm can enter a human when their dog licks them as the person swallows a flea fragment from the dog’s mouth. The flea carries tapeworm eggs which is how dogs and cats get tapeworms.
This brings to mind the cat flea. If dogs can give their owner a tapeworm as described so can the cat if you allow your cat to lick your face near your mouth or around the eyes. Just a thought. Probably more theoretical than actual and definitely rare but the possibility is definitely there.
There are other zoonoses which can infect cats and which can be transferred from cat to human. Although it has never been explored fully, Covid can theoretically be transmitted from cat to human. And that could happen with a lick. It might just happen when the human kisses their cat but this has not been established in a scientific study to the best of my knowledge.
And that endlessly discussed zoonotic, parasitic, disease toxoplasmosis could also be transmitted from cat to person but not via a cat lick as I understand it. People can get toxoplasmosis from being in contact with a cat’s faeces and then placing their hands in their mouth which transfers the Toxoplasma gondii oocysts to the person but this is far rarer than is portrayed in many online articles written by people who dislike cats.
Ringworm is a highly contagious fungus. If your cat has it, you must fix it otherwise they’ll give it to you! But it is not transmitted to humans via a cat lick. At least not directly. It takes physical contact between cat and person. But when a cat licks their human caregiver, they might allorub – rub their cheeks against their human in an act of scent exchange – which would transmit ringworm on the cat’s face which can be difficult to spot.
The bacterium Pasteurella multocida is in the mouths of 70%-90% of domestic cats. This is one of the bacteria that infects people when bitten by a cat. It would seem plausible, therefore, that if a cat licks the hand of a person with an open, minor wound that the disease could be transmitted in this way as well.
“Capnocytophaga is a type of bacteria found in dogs’ and other animals’ mouths that can cause serious infection, especially for immunocompromised people” – WebMD. Once again this is a bacterial infection that might rarely be spread from a cat’s mouth to a person via a minor wound on their hand when licked by their cat. Or if the cat licks their owner around the mouth or eyes.
Well, there are other rare zoonoses that can either theoretically or actually be passed from cat to person under unusual circumstances.
As a consequence, some cat owners might not like their cat’s loving kiss sometimes. The elderly who are immunocompromised with sore hands due to dry, chapped skin come to mind particularly as those who might be more likely to be vulnerable to the potential dangers of their cat’s loving kiss.
Personally, as I have become grumpier due to old age which is caused by constant tiredness and aches and pains, I have become less accepting of my cat’s desire to lick my hand. It can simply be irritating because the cat’s tongue contains those backward facing keratin spines which are so effective at grooming cats. It is like sandpaper being drawn over the skin.
ChatGPT’s response to “What are the possible health implications for cat owners if their cat licks them?”
ChatGPT uses a lot of sources to provide very polite answers to questions.
When a cat licks its owner, it’s generally a sign of affection and bonding. While cat saliva is not typically harmful to humans, there are some considerations regarding potential health implications:
- Allergies: Cat saliva, like their dander and urine, can contain proteins that some individuals are allergic to. Allergies may manifest as skin irritation, sneezing, itching, watery eyes, or respiratory issues.
- Bacteria and Infections: Cats use their mouths for grooming, and their saliva can contain bacteria. While a cat’s oral bacteria is usually specific to felines, there’s a possibility of infection if a cat licks an open wound or a compromised area of skin.
- Parasitic Transmission: Cats can carry parasites like fleas or ticks. If a cat licks you and is infested with parasites, there’s a potential risk of transmission.
- Toxoplasmosis: Toxoplasmosis is a parasitic infection that cats can carry and shed in their feces. While direct transmission through licking is rare, it’s important for pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems to be cautious, as toxoplasmosis can be more severe for them.
- Cat Scratch Fever (Bartonellosis): If a cat licks an area that they’ve scratched or bitten, there’s a small risk of transmitting Bartonella bacteria to humans. This can cause symptoms like fever, swollen lymph nodes, and fatigue.
- Pasteurella multocida Infection: This bacterium is commonly found in a cat’s mouth and can potentially cause skin and soft tissue infections if introduced through broken skin.
- Ringworm: Cats can carry and transmit ringworm, a fungal infection that can affect the skin, hair, and nails of humans and other animals.
To minimize potential health risks, especially for those with allergies or compromised immune systems, it’s a good practice to wash your hands after interacting with your cat, especially if you’ve been licked or scratched. Regular veterinary care, parasite prevention, and maintaining good hygiene in both the cat and the living environment can help mitigate any potential health concerns associated with cat licking. If you have specific health concerns or conditions, consult a healthcare professional.
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