Salmonella in Cats: Everything You Need to Know

Salmonella is a disease-causing intestinal bacterium that can be spread between several animal species, and between animals and humans (zoonoses). Common symptoms of salmonella infection in cats are fever, loss of appetite, vomiting and diarrhea. Most cats recover without treatment, but in severe cases the infection can be life-threatening.

What is salmonella?

Salmonella is a bacterium that causes disease in the intestine in particular. The most common symptom in cats is temporary loss of appetite and fever, but diarrhea and vomiting can also occur. The disease is a zoonosis, which means that it can be transmitted between animals and humans. The disease is notifiable and in case of suspicion of salmonella in an animal or animal feed, it must be reported to the Swedish Board of Agriculture and the county veterinarian.

In Sweden, the prevalence of salmonella is low, because we have control programs to prevent infection in our food-producing animals. The times people become infected with salmonella are in the vast majority of cases through the ingestion of imported food. However, Salmonella is found in wild animals, such as small birds. As a result, outdoor cats are at increased risk of becoming infected with salmonella. In the winter of 1999, the first salmonella outbreak was detected in outdoor cats in Sweden and salmonella infection in cats has since become an increasingly common phenomenon.

Because salmonella is a zoonosis, there is a risk that you as the owner will be infected with salmonella if your cat carries the infection. If you suspect that the cat has received salmonella, it is important to contact a veterinarian and to maintain very good hygiene.

How is salmonella transmitted?

Salmonella is mainly transmitted through ingestion. The infection dose is low, ie a large amount of bacteria is not needed to cause disease. Cats, like humans, can be infected by unheated foods, but the main route of transmission for outdoor cats is via small birds that carry salmonella.

Salmonella outbreaks in cats most common during the winter months

The salmonella bacterium is mainly spread via faeces, and when many birds gather in a limited area, the spread of infection can be large. During late winter and spring, when many small birds are brought in after the winter, the risk is high that they will become infected with salmonella and pass on the infection. Feeding places for small birds, such as bird tables, can be heavily contaminated with salmonella bacteria. Cats often become infected by catching and eating a sick small bird, or by contact with droppings from infected birds.

Symptoms of salmonella infection in cats

In many cases, a salmonella infection progresses with relatively mild symptoms, and some cats do not get sick at all. Symptoms of salmonella in cats include fever, loss of appetite, vomiting and diarrhea, which may be mixed with blood. The cat can also become lazy and have abdominal pain.

In really severe cases of salmonella, the bacterium can spread to other internal organs. Pregnant cats can have miscarriages and there is also a risk that the cat will suffer from blood poisoning.

When should a veterinarian be contacted?

If your cat is lethargic and eats poorly, you should consult a veterinarian, whether or not you suspect salmonella. Cats are prone to starvation and can quickly become ill if they stop eating, even if the original cause would be relatively harmless.

You should also contact a veterinarian if the cat has profuse and / or blood-mixed diarrhea, or is unable to keep food due to vomiting.

Examination and diagnosis

At the vet, the cat must undergo a clinical examination. Blood samples are often taken to check the status of internal organs, signs of inflammation, etc. Cats with abdominal pain may undergo an examination with ultrasound. The diagnosis of salmonella is made by detecting the bacterium in stool samples.

Treatment of salmonella in cats

Salmonella infection heals on its own in most cats. However, the cat should be kept indoors and under observation as long as it has disease symptoms. The cat should also be served easily digestible shoe food and probiotics as long as the intestine is in malformation and for about a week afterwards. Read more about the appropriate diet for stomach ailments in cats.

In the event of a more serious illness, the cat may need to be admitted to an animal hospital for supportive care, including drip and support feeding. Medical treatment with antibiotics is only prescribed if the veterinarian considers that the cat is at risk of blood poisoning. Otherwise, antibiotics are not normally given for intestinal infection, as it affects the intestine negatively and increases the risk of developing resistance.

Hygiene measures to prevent transmission to humans

When there is an infected cat in the household, extra good hygiene should be observed. Susceptibility to infection varies between individuals, but among other things, young children, the elderly and the immunocompromised are more sensitive to both infection and serious illness.

Thorough hand washing is recommended after handling the sick cat and when cleaning the litter box, as well as before cooking and eating.
The cat must not be allowed on a dining table, sink, pantry or other food-related areas.

Wash the cat’s accessories separately with a dish brush that is not used for plates, cutlery and other household utensils.
Toddlers should not play in the immediate vicinity of an infected cat or litter box, as children find it difficult to maintain the hygiene required in practice to avoid becoming infected.

Measures to prevent transmission to other animals

Not only is the spread of infection between cats and humans, but the affected cat can quickly transmit salmonella to other animals. In particular, domestic cats and barn cats should not have access to areas where food for other animals is stored. Feel free to try to keep cats away from the animal enclosures during the time when there is the greatest risk of salmonella outbreaks, ie during late winter.

The cat can carry the infection for a long time

A cat that has recovered from salmonella can carry the bacterium for a long time afterwards, sometimes as long as three months. Even if the number of bacteria in the cat’s faeces is much lower than when it is acutely ill, there may still be a risk of infection for humans and other animals.

Prevent salmonella infection in you and your cat

The best way to prevent infection from other animals to your cat or you is to break the pathways of infection:

  • Outdoor cats should preferably not be near feeding areas for birds at all, nor should they be staying on the ground below. Be sure to keep cats away from bird tables where many birds gather – rather put out small feeders or occasional seed balls where cats have difficulty accessing.
  • Thorough hand washing is recommended after work with bird tables, as well as after feeding or other handling of small birds.
  • The cat should not be served food that may contain salmonella bacteria (mainly food that has not been heat-treated). If you give your cat fresh food, it is very important to let extra good hygiene prevail.
  • Remove and dig down the cat’s prey, such as rodents and small birds, before the cat has time to eat them.
  • Be careful with hygiene at home, and always wash your hands thoroughly after cleaning the litter box.

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