The CATalyst: Typhus Scare Almost Turns Town Against Cats

Steve Dale, CAT FANCY writer and syndicated newspaper pet columnist, provides a weekly cat news roundup. This week, he discusses the fate of feral cats in California when typhus spreads.

When a bad situation occurs, we often blame the cats.

Health authorities recently discovered typhus – a bacterial infection spread by fleas – in Santa Ana, Calif. Depending on the type of typhus, the infection can be deadly to people. The initial response from officials was, essentially, “Catch and kill the feral cats.”  

The problems with this approach appear obvious. First, officials would never succeed at catching all the feral cats. Second, the cats might not even carry the fleas spreading typhus at all. Finally, the community — as with every U.S. community — is filled with reasoned people, and also cat lovers.

Animal control set traps to catch the feral cats, but residents (or reportedly one resident) sabotaged the traps. The story made news, and that’s when Alley Cat Allies interceded.

The person who contracted typhus in Santa Ana has recovered. In fact, the good news is that the type of typhus identified, called murine typhus, isn’t typically as dangerous to people as most other forms of typhus.

While the cat flea (Ctenocephalides felis) has been implicated, this doesn’t necessarily correlate with feral cats. Despite its name the cat flea is by far the most common flea in America. This bugger is the most likely flea species to be found on wildlife and dogs, as well as cats. Rodents, however, are typically most often responsible for spreading typhus.  

Aileen Walden, director of community programs and support at Alley Cat Allies, said initially-tested rats were clean, or at least not carrying the infected fleas; opossums, on the other hand, tested positive. Walden notes feral cats have not been tested. She concedes it’s very possible the feral cats carry the fleas.

“Feral cats and wildlife aren’t likely going to interact directly with people,” Walden says. “The fleas [potentially carrying typhus] are in the environment, so what’s most important is to protect pets and homes.”

In this economically challenged area, many residents might not use flea protection to protect their pets. So, this past Sat., Jun. 9, Walden and two colleagues from Alley Cat Allies hosted a “flea fair,” at the Walden Intermediate School in Santa Ana. Alley Cat Allies and the community gave away 50 four-month supplies of Advantage flea control, as well as pamphlets with general information printed in English and Spanish.

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