The Animal Doctor by Dr. Michael W. Fox

Cats, COVID-19 and Other Public Health Concerns

DEAR DR. FOX: I live in a senior community where TNR (trap-neuter-release) is practiced. The cats feed in our dump, and some residents also choose to feed them. The house next door to me is unoccupied at this time. Several cats reside under the house, where they come and go at will.

They use the garden alongside my home as their personal space, urinating and pooping. I never realized this until my husband brought it to my attention while I was pulling weeds. His concern was COVID: We had just read your article stating that TNR programs by animal shelters should be curtailed during this pandemic.

I brought this cat issue to our community’s general manager and to the board. The GM said he contacted some health agency, and was told this should not be a concern. Please inform me of any information you have regarding this issue. -- L.S., Cape Coral, Florida

DEAR L.S.: You are referring to my warning about keeping cats indoors, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is crucial because they can get the viral infection from humans, and then possibly carry it outdoors and infect other cats and susceptible wildlife. This precautionary measure is one of many reasons cats should never be allowed to roam free.

Cat feces can contain pathogens transmissible to humans and other species, wild and domesticated, be they around farms or in rural, suburban or urban communities. There are several diseases that can be passed to humans from cat feces, detailed by Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine -- notably salmonellosis, toxoplasmosis, and diseases caused by hookworms and other parasites called Toxocara.

As yet, no cat with COVID-19 has been reported to have infected people. However, a mutated strain in mink, contracted from infected workers in fur farms, has infected people. Thousands of mink routinely escape from these fur farms, and virologists are concerned that infected mink could pass the virus on to other wildlife. It is also notable that cats can get some strains of the influenza virus from people, and in turn, pass the infection on to other people.

So I am simply calling for the commonsense application of the precautionary principle: Keep owned cats indoors. Those living outdoors should be trapped, neutered, enclosed and either rehomed or placed in sanctuaries. Wear gloves while gardening and wash your hands afterward, as well as after cleaning litter boxes for indoor cats.

I hope this clears up any confusion for you and others during this time of disinformation and of the harmful politicization of preventive public health measures.

DEAR DR. FOX: Can we catch poison ivy from the fur of our cats and dogs? -- H.A.R., Palm Beach, Florida

DEAR H.A.R.: Yes, the oils from poison ivy can indeed be transferred from our pets to our skin. Several years ago, my son got poison ivy after playing with our malamute mix, who had been out running with us earlier in the woods.

My basic advice for all dog owners is to keep them on the trails when outdoors, and away from vegetation where they can pick up not only poison ivy oils, but also a much worse threat to public health: ticks. Especially worrisome is the rapidly spreading Lone Star tick, which can transmit Lyme and other diseases to humans, dogs and other animals.

Always check your animals with a flea comb and look between their toes and ears after an outdoor venture where there is natural vegetation and known tick infestation.

(Send all mail to animaldocfox@gmail.com or to Dr. Michael Fox in care of Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106. The volume of mail received prohibits personal replies, but questions and comments of general interest will be discussed in future columns.

Visit Dr. Fox’s website at DrFoxOneHealth.com.)