Infectious Diseases

The Dangers of Human Contact with Big Cats

May 21, 2019People participating in cub petting. Two cougar cubs lay listlessly while humans of all ages play with them.

Big cats can potentially carry many diseases that can be transmitted by animals to humans through various forms of contact; these are known as Zoonotic diseases. Many businesses that allow hands-on interaction with cubs for photos or pay-to-play schemes will not inform the public that a cub is ill, even when it is sick with a zoonotic disease. This is done because the time that cubs can legally be handled is limited to a two-month period. When a cub can potentially make $5,000 – $10,000 a day, any downtime is very costly in the eyes of these businesses, and they’d rather not lose out on money, though patrons may contract these diseases.

Some of the more common zoonotic diseases that big cats can carry and transmit to humans are:

  1. Ringworm – a highly contagious skin infection caused by a fungus that can be transmitted through contact.
  2. Roundworms & Hookworms – intestinal parasitic worms. Roundworms, also known as ascarids, can be caught through accidentally ingesting infective worm eggs. Hookworms can be passed one of two ways, either through accidental ingestion of infective larvae or through larval migrans, which is where the infective worms penetrate and burrow through the skin. Once larvae are in the body, they can move about freely, infecting and damaging different organs including the gut, liver, and lungs.
  3. Giardia & Cryptosporidium – intestinal protozoans that cause malodorous diarrhea. Transmission is through accidental ingestion usually after contact with a fomite or infective water source. A fomite is any object, such as a door handle or the bottom of a shoe, that can spread disease. Both parasites can survive weeks to months in the environment.
  4. Young cubs suffering from Metabolic Bone Disease, unable to walk due to broken bones. These cubs suffer because of human's wanted to play with a cub.Toxoplasma – another protozoan that is contracted by accidentally ingesting the parasite after contact with feline feces. It is believed that there are already a large number of people infected with this parasite in the United States who may not even know it. A healthy immune system can keep the parasite at bay, though it can persist for long periods of time in the human body. The greatest concern comes for pregnant women or those who are immunocompromised from illness. Serious disease can occur for them including miscarriage, stillbirth, a child born with severe birth defects, ocular (eye) disease, and other symptoms such as fever, seizures, nausea, and poor coordination.
  5. Leptospira – a bacteria spread through contact with the urine of infected animals. The bacteria can penetrate through skin or mucous membranes. It can cause a wide range of symptoms that are easily mistaken as other diseases. If left untreated, it can cause severe kidney damage, liver damage, meningitis, respiratory problems, and death.
  6. Rabies virus – a deadly virus that causes inflammation of the brain, spread through the saliva of an infected individual. Transmission is most commonly through a bite. An animal can be protected from this virus through routine vaccination and proper administration. Unfortunately, many of the cubs in these businesses do not receive routine veterinary care.
  7. Bovine tuberculosis – A relative of the bacterium that causes human tuberculosis. Both bacteria affect the lungs most commonly but can occur anywhere in the body, and can cause deadly disease. Transmission is spread through the air. Most recently, in 2014, two women in the United Kingdom were diagnosed with bovine tuberculosis. It was discovered that these women caught the disease from their cat that became infective after consuming a prey animal that was infected with the bacterium. It has also been found that nearly half of the lion population in Kruger National Park are infected with bovine tuberculosis. Though at this moment, there is likely a low risk for zoonotic potential through cub-petting, as bovine tuberculosis cases continue to spread, more animals are likely to become infected, especially those animals that are consuming meat obtained in an unscrupulous fashion.

A cub is shaken and bobbled around in an attempt to make them more active for a child to play with. These are just some of the diseases that can be spread when the public comes into contact with big cats. Since no laws restrict the handling of sickly cubs, the pay-to-play cub petting schemes get away with putting the public in danger so that they can continue to make money at the risk of human health. Changing the law to put an end to cub-petting doesn’t just protect animals; it protects humans too.

Reach out to your representative today and tell them you want them to support the Big Cat Public Safety Act. Learn more about this bill and how it will help big cats across the US at www.tcwr.org/advocacy

You can also learn about these zoonotic diseases and more on the CDC website at https://www.cdc.gov/onehealth/basics/zoonotic-diseases.html