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Cats - health and safety risks to babies and children

Cats can make great pets. But it’s important to know how to keep your child safe when they are with them.

Cats can be unpredictable and scare easily. Sometimes they might not want you or your child to approach them. They might scratch or bite without warning.

When your child is at the right age:

  • teach them how to behave around the cat
  • supervise them around pets

Do not expect your child to take on board your safety advice as children do not understand danger.

Related topic

Cats - teaching your child to be safe

Babies, children and cats should never be left together unsupervised. It is important an adult supervises at all times.

The main health and safety risks to your child are:

  • risks to their breathing
  • risk of infection
  • risk of cat scratches and bites

Risks to your baby’s breathing

Never allow cats into any room where a baby or child is sleeping.

A cat may settle to sleep near a baby's face. This is very dangerous. It could interfere with your baby's breathing. It could suffocate a sleeping baby.

Do not allow your cat to use any of your child's equipment or cot for play, relaxing on or sleeping. Use a safe cot or pram net. This will stop your cat from using it as a bed.

Make sure any open windows in the nursery are cat-proof.

Risk of infection from cats

Cats can carry infectious diseases that can be harmful to your child. They usually pass them on by scratching or through their poo.

You or your child could develop an infection if you:

  • touch cat poo or something contaminated with cat poo
  • then touch your mouth, food, or feeding equipment

The best ways to protect your child from diseases are to make sure that everyone in your family:

  • are up to date with all their vaccines
  • wash their hands regularly, especially after handling the cat or their litter

The most common diseases your child could get are:

  • toxoplasmosis - a common infection that's usually harmless but can cause serious problems in some people, particularly pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems
  • cat scratch fever - causes swollen lymph glands
  • toxocariasis - a rare infection caused by roundworm parasites

Keep all of your child’s feeding utensils out of the cat’s reach. Keep your cat away from your child's toys, nursery and any other equipment.

Keep your cat's food, toys and any other cat equipment out of your baby or child's reach. Your baby or small child could choke on these items, there is also a risk of infection.

Keep away from cats abroad

If you’re abroad or on holidays, keep your child away from cats. Cats in other countries might have dangerous infections, such as rabies.

Stomach illnesses and cats

Cats can be the source of stomach illnesses that can cause diarrhoea and vomiting.

These include:

  • salmonella
  • campylobacter
  • giardia
  • cryptosporidium

Read about the risk of your child getting these bacteria from your pet.

Your child can become ill if they touch infected cat poo and then touch their mouth.

If they develop symptoms such as diarrhoea and vomiting, talk to your GP. Make sure to tell your GP that you are a pet owner.

Ringworm and cats

Ringworm is a very common skin infection. It causes a ring-like red rash on the skin. Cats can pass it on to your child.

Read more about ringworm

Risk of cat scratches or bites

If a cat scratches or bites your child, wash the wound under warm running water.

It's a good idea to do this even if the skin is not broken. Cats carry a lot of germs on their teeth and claws that can cause illness to you or your child.

If the bleeding is serious or heavy

  1. Control the bleeding first.
  2. Put a clean pad on the wound and apply pressure.
  3. Get urgent medical help from your nearest hospital emergency department.

If the wound is bleeding a little or if the skin is broken and not bleeding

  1. Wash the wound with soap and warm running tap water.
  2. Dry the wound and cover it with a plaster.

Talk to your GP if:

  • a bite or scratch has broken your child’s skin, unless the wound is very minor
  • the wound is not healing
  • the wound becomes infected
  • your child develops a fever, unusual skin lesions or is sick from an unknown cause
  • you are worried in any way

Cat scratch fever

Cat scratch fever is a disease passed on by cats. It can enter the body when a cat scratch breaks the surface of the skin. Most cat scratches don't lead to cat scratch fever.

Symptoms are:

  • a lump or scab at the area where you or your child has been scratched
  • fever (temperature greater than 38 Celsius)
  • tiredness
  • sore and swollen glands where the cat has scratched - these might be in your child’s neck, armpit or groin area

It's rarely a problem for anyone with a healthy immune system. Usually, antibiotics can treat the infection.

To reduce the risk of getting this illness:

  • watch children when they are playing with the cat
  • make sure hands are carefully washed after handling the cat, its litter, litter tray, bowl or toys
  • avoid rough play with the cat
  • wash all bites and scratches immediately with soap and water

Keeping clean around cats

Washing your hands and your child's hands carefully reduces the risk of them picking up a disease or germs from your cat.

You and your child should wash your hands after you handle:

  • a cat
  • cat litter
  • the cat's bowl
  • a cat's toys

Try not to allow children to dig around in the garden area that the cat uses. Keep litter trays away from children and away from the kitchen and eating areas.

Keeping your cat healthy

Keeping your cat healthy can help lessen the risk of them catching a disease and passing it on to your child.

Talk to your vet about:

  • grooming
  • claw trimming - this can protect children from scratches
  • controlling fleas, ticks and worms
  • making sure all your cat’s vaccinations are up to date

If your cat has diarrhoea or any other sign of illness, contact your vet. But remember that cats do not always have symptoms.

Some cats get a disease known as cat or feline AIDS. This cannot be passed onto humans. It's not the same as the AIDS virus. But cats with this disease may be more likely to pick up other infections you or your child could catch.

Read information from the Dublin Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (DSPCA) on how to care for your cat.

If you are expecting a baby

If you are expecting a baby, it's important to prepare your cat for the new arrival. This is also true if you are bringing a child to live with you.

Contact your vet for advice on what to do.

Ask your partner or support person to empty the cat’s litter tray. If this is not possible, make sure you wear gloves.

Wash your hands well after handling your cat’s:

  • litter
  • litter tray
  • anything that might have cat poo on it

Allergies to cats

Allergies to animals tend to be more common with household pets such as cats.

Often it is not their fur your child is reacting to, rather it is flakes of their:

  • poo
  • spit
  • skin
  • urine

Sometimes children are fine with their own family pet but get allergic reactions to other people’s pets.

Related topic

Your child and animal-related allergies

page last reviewed: 27/06/2019
next review due: 27/06/2022