The image of a cat hunting mice is as classic as their love of milk and yarn or their dislike of water and dogs. While we may be familiar with this archetype, in practice, the hunting of rodents can expose our feline friends to harmful diseases and parasites that can even pose risks to their human owners.
Dr. Lori Teller, an associate professor in the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, says that cat owners should ideally discourage their pets from hunting rodents.
“Because cats are natural predators and hunting is instinctive to them, this can be easier said than done,” Teller said. “Cat owners can place a bell on the cat’s collar to warn the prey and give it time to escape. Since cats are nocturnal and rodents are more prevalent after dark, keeping a cat indoors overnight may also limit hunting opportunities.”
This is important because there are several diseases cats can contract from mice, including the plague, leptospirosis, hantavirus—which humans cannot contract from cats, but can contract from rodents brought home by a cat—and toxoplasmosis, which can be problematic for pregnant women.
Mice can also transmit roundworms, an intestinal parasite that can cause vomiting, diarrhea, and weight loss in cats and can lead to a condition called visceral larval migrans in humans.
“Indoor cats also can get fleas and ticks from rodents that come into the home,” Teller said. “These parasites can make your cat itchy and they can also bite you, spreading potential disease, such as the plague, Lyme disease, and others, to you and your family members.”
If a cat owner has rodents in their home, they should take precautions in their pest-control efforts, as most rodenticides are extremely toxic to cats and some traps carry the risk of injuring both pet and pest indiscriminately.
“There are different types of rat poison—such as anticoagulants, neurotoxins, and agents—that cause a life-threatening increase in calcium levels,” Teller said. “If treated quickly enough, there are some antidotes for the anticoagulant-type of rat poisons. There are no good treatments for the agents that increase calcium levels or the neurotoxic rodenticides once they’ve been systemically absorbed.
“A couple of pet-safe pest control options are ‘rat zappers’ that electrocute the rodents, but are too small for a pet to access and bucket traps that rodents can fall into and then drown and, again, are too small for pets to access. There are also specific types of bait boxes, called Tier 1 boxes, that adult cats cannot get into but rats can. Traditional mouse traps can definitely cause pain and trauma to a pet but are rarely fatal.”
Teller recommends that, depending on how severe the rodent infestation is, pet owners consult with a professional exterminator to discuss pet-friendly ways to remove the rodents and ensure that the only animals in their homes are the pets they choose!
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