Anthrax is an often fatal infectious disease that may infect all warm-blooded animals, including cats and humans. Under-diagnosis and unreliable reporting make it difficult to estimate the true frequency of anthrax worldwide; however, anthrax has been reported from nearly every continent. Under normal circumstances, anthrax outbreaks in the United States are extremely rare. Anthrax received much attention in 2001 in relation to the terrorist attacks on the United States because of its potential use as a biological weapon.
Anthrax is caused by infection with bacteria known as Bacillus anthracis. This bacterium forms spores, which make it extremely resistant to environmental conditions such as heating, freezing, chemical disinfection, or dehydration that typically destroy other types of bacteria. Thus, it can persist for a long time within or on a contaminated environment or object. Livestock may consume the spores while grazing; however, the most common source of infection in cats is from raw or poorly cooked contaminated meat or contact with the blood, tissues, or body fluids of infected animals that harbor spores.
After exposure to the bacteria, the typical incubation period is 3 to 7 days. Once the bacteria infect an animal or human, the organisms multiply and spread throughout the body. They produce a potent and lethal toxin that causes cell death and breakdown of the infected tissues. This results in inflammation and organ damage, eventually leading to organ failure.
Cats may develop sudden, severe (acute) blood poisoning after ingesting Bacillus anthracis bacteria. This may lead to a rapid swelling of the throat and sudden death. More often, a mild, chronic form is seen, in which cats show generalized signs of illness and gradually recover with treatment. Intestinal involvement is seldom recognized because the signs (such as loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea or constipation) are so nonspecific.
A diagnosis based on signs is difficult because many infections and other conditions (such as poisoning) may have signs similar to anthrax. Diagnosis thus requires laboratory analysis of blood samples from the potentially infected cat to confirm the presence of the bacteria.
Anthrax is controlled through vaccination programs in large animals (such as cattle), rapid detection and reporting, quarantine, treatment of any animals exposed to the bacteria, and the burning or burial of suspected or confirmed fatal cases. In most countries, all cases of anthrax must be reported to the appropriate regulatory officials. Cleaning and disinfection of any bedding, cages, or other possibly contaminated materials is necessary to prevent further spread of the disease. Because anthrax spores are resistant to many disinfectants, check with a health official as to proper procedures for decontaminating inanimate objects. If a pet is exposed to anthrax, the fur should be decontaminated to avoid transmission to humans. Currently, no chemicals that kill spores are considered safe for use on animals; therefore, repeated bathing is necessary to mechanically remove the organism.
Human cases of anthrax may follow contact with contaminated animals or animal products. For infection to occur, spores must gain access to the new victim by ingestion, inhalation, or through open wounds. When transmission occurs between individuals, it is usually through exposure to infected tissue or body fluids. Therefore, humans should use strict precautions (wearing gloves, protective clothing, goggles, and masks) when handling potentially infected animals or their remains.
Last full review/revision July 2011 by Otto M. Radostits, CM, DVM, MSc, DACVIM (Deceased); Eugene D. Janzen, DVM, MVS; Jodie Low Choy, BVMS; Dennis W. Macy, MS, DACVIM; Dudley L. McCaw, DVM, DACVIM (Small Animal, Oncology); Barton W. Rohrbach, VMD, MPH, DACVPM; J. Glenn Songer, PhD; Richard A. Squires, BVSc (Hons), PhD, DVR, DACVIM, DECVIM-CA, MRCVS; Bert E. Stromberg, PhD; Joseph Taboada, DVM, DACVIM; Charles O. Thoen, DVM, PhD; John F. Timoney, MVB, PhD, Dsc, MRCVS; Ian Tizard, BVMS, PhD, DACVM; Max J. Appel, DMV, PhD; David A. Ashford, DVM, MPH, DS; Stephen C. Barr, BVSc, MVS, PhD, DACVIM; J. P. Dubey, MVSc, PhD; Paul Ettestad, DVM, MS; Craig E. Greene, DVM, MS; Delores E. Hill, PhD; Johnny D. Hoskins, DVM, PhD