Cat-dependent diseases cost Australia AU$6 billion per year through impacts on human health and livestock production

Date: 16, Oct, 2020
Author(s):   Legge, S., Taggart, P.L., Dickman, C.R., Read, J.L., Woinarski, J.C.Z.
Publisher: Wildlife Research

Context: Cats are the definitive or primary host for pathogens that cause diseases in people and livestock. These cat-dependent diseases would not occur in Australia if cats had not been introduced, and their ongoing persistence depends on contacts with cats. Toxoplasma gondii is a protozoan parasite that cycles between cats and any other warm-blooded animals. People infected by T. gondii may appear asymptomatic, or have a mild illness, or experience severe, potentially lethal symptoms; the parasite may also affect behaviour and mental health. T. gondii is also a major contributor to spontaneous abortion in sheep and goats. Two species of Sarcocystis, another genus of protozoan parasite, cycle through cats and sheep, causing macroscopic cysts to form in sheep tissues that reduce meat saleability. Toxocara cati, the cat roundworm, causes minor illnesses in humans and livestock, and the bacterium Bartonella henselae causes cat scratch disease, an infection that can be contracted by people when scratched or bitten by cats carrying the pathogen.

Aims: We estimated the economic costs of cat-dependent pathogens in Australia.

Methods: We collated national and global data on infection rates, health and production consequences.

Key results: We estimated the costs of two cat-dependent diseases (toxoplasmosis, cat scratch disease) in people at AU$6.06 billion (plausible range AU$2.11–10.7 billion) annually, and the costs to livestock production from toxoplasmosis and sarcocystosis at AU$11.7 million (plausible range AU$7.67–18.3 million). Most of the human health costs are due to the associations between T. gondii and higher rates of traffic accidents and mental illness in people. The causality behind these associations remains uncertain, so those costs may be overestimated. Conversely, our estimates are incomplete, infections and illness are under-reported or misdiagnosed, and our understanding of disease outcomes is still imperfect, all of which make our costs underestimated.

Conclusions: Our analysis suggests that substantial benefits to public health and livestock production could be realised by reducing exposure to cats and breaking parasite transmission cycles.

Implications: Reducing feral cat populations in farming and urban areas, reducing the pet cat population and increasing rates of pet cat containment could help reduce the burden of cat-dependent diseases to people and livestock.