This past week, a friend who works in rescue and has been fostering cats for many years posted this to Facebook: “Lesson learned today. Conjunctivitis or Pink Eye is contagious from cats to humans!!! Who would have thought.”
Conjunctivitis can be contagious from cats to humans, depending on the cause. The word conjunctivitis describes inflammation of the pink membrane of the eye, which lines the white part (sclera) and the inner eyelid. This inflammation in a cat usually has an underlying cause, and the underlying cause is what might be transmissible to humans.
The most common cause of feline conjunctivitis is Feline Viral Rhinotracheitis (FVR), which is caused by the feline herpes virus type-1. This virus is very specific to cats, and though both domestic and wild cats can catch it, you can’t get conjunctivitis from your cat if it was caused by FVR.
The second most common cause of feline conjunctivitis is Chlamydiosis (Chlamydia felis), causing about 30% of chronic cases. Although this can be transmitted to humans, it is very rare. A 2004 study in the Australian Veterinary Journal found only seven case reports of feline-to-human transmission.
Chlamydia felis does not survive in the environment, so washing with soap and running water after handling cats carrying the organism. Since it requires direct contact between cats to spread, as irresistible as a sick kitten may be, cuddle the little one away from your face to decrease the transmission risk.
The Center for Food Security & Public Health, Feline Routes of Transmission
Merck Veterinary Manual, Overview of Chalmydial Conjunctivitis
Australian Veterinary Journal, Is Chlamydophila felis a significant zoonotic pathogen?
University of Sydney Centre for Veterinary Education, Chlamydophila spp
Photo courtesy Donna Brown on Flickr