The recent news that four people in Britain have caught tuberculosis from their cats may have raised some concern among pet owners here. But veterinarians say there is no cause for alarm, as the risk of this happening in Singapore is extremely low.
The cases in Britain, which were reported last week, are said to be the first ever recorded incidents of cats passing the disease to humans. The infection chain can be traced to the cats contracting bovine tuberculosis, after hunting wildlife and rodents that had been involved in a bovine tuberculosis outbreak.
Dr Brian Loon, 32, principal veterinary surgeon at Amber Veterinary Practice in Siglap, says: "It is generally considered rare for humans to get tuberculosis from their pets, as this condition is rare in pets, particularly in Singapore."
This is because pets here have little interaction with cows, badgers and other wildlife, unlike the cats that made headlines, which had been out and about. Veterinarians say animals who live in the wild are more likely to catch the disease as they are in free-roaming environments where the chances of trans- species diseases being spread are higher.
In any case, Dr Simon Quek, 40, veterinarian at Mount Pleasant Animal Medical Centre's Clementi branch, says: "Most Singaporeans are vaccinated against the disease anyway."
Tuberculosis is a bacterial infection that affects the lungs and also the circulatory and central nervous systems. The disease is spread by prolonged contact with infectious people through the droplets they exhale.
Symptoms include a persistent cough, sudden weight loss and coughing blood up. Treatment with a cocktail of drugs usually takes six to nine months.
While the risk of contracting the disease from pets is very low, veterinarians say they do see cases of other infections and zoonotic diseases, or diseases that are spread from animals to human.
The most common infection they see here that is passed from pet to human is ringworm, followed by scabies and allergies caused by flea bites.
Dr Loon says he sees about one case of a pet with ringworm every month. Ringworm, which is a type of fungal infection, can affect a variety of animals. These include dogs, cats, rabbits and guinea pigs. The symptoms appear as a red rash on the animals' skin, usually with hair loss around the affected area. Humans will sport a similar rash.
"Ringworm is prevalent in Singapore due to the humid environment, which encourages the growth of ringworm spores on the skin of humans and animals," says Dr Loon.
When an animal is infected, it sheds the fungal spores on its skin. When human skin comes into contact with these spores, either from direct contact with the infected animal's skin or from spores in the environment, these fungal spores can cause a similar ringworm infection on humans, he adds.
Besides ringworm, the scabies parasite that gets onto animals such as rabbits, dogs and cats can also cause rashes in humans, says Dr Cathy Chan, 35, a veterinarian at The Animal Doctors in Ang Mo Kio.
"Scabies causes extreme itch and usually shows up on a human's inner thighs and inner arms," she says.