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Can Cats get Mad Cow Disease?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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Mad cow disease or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) has many people concerned for their own health. Some have stopped eating beef and sheep altogether in the hopes of not contracting the disease. Though the US government feels reasonably certain that mad cow disease is not currently a problem with US purchased beef, in some other countries, the same cannot be said. Many pet owners are concerned not just for themselves but also for their cats and dogs.

It has been shown, that at about the same time that people began showing contraction of BSE, the disease also affected some cats. Because BSE can take years to manifest, transmission rate may actually be higher than supposed. Also, because food for cats often contains parts of the animal most likely to carry BSE, like offal and brains, likelihood of transmission may be greater.

The good news is that scientists are reasonably certain cats infected with BSE cannot transmit the disease to their owners. Also, cases of BSE in dogs have not been noted. Other animals that might be susceptible to mad cow disease include mink, deer, elk, and sheep. Yet these animals are seldom raised as pets.

Medical researchers feel that the safest way to protect cats from BSE is to construct a diet that does not contain potentially infected ingredients. First off, one can make sure that food for cats does not contain any beef. Alternately, one could purchase pet foods that are made of “human grade food.” This will not contain cow brains or offal.

Domesticated cats were never meant to live on beef, in any case. Imagine Mr. Whiskers hunting cattle. Alternative foods can contain chicken, fish, eggs, and soy as main protein sources. These are considered as good as or better than beef in diets for cats.

Some foods for cats do contain lamb or sheep ingredients. Since technically sheep can become infected with BSE, avoiding sheep ingredients might also be a good idea. However, at this point, researchers have not established a cause and effect between pet food and BSE. Eating table scraps rather than pet food might just as easily have infected cats. This remains an area where more research is needed.

Some advocate feeding cats an entirely vegetarian diet. While many support this out of personal conviction, it is not exactly natural for an omnivorous creature to never eat meat. Many veterinarians are opposed to strictly vegan diets, where all protein sources must derive from soy or grains.

Spending a little more on a cat’s food, or using only foods for cats that contain chicken and fish protein can help prevent one’s cat from contracting BSE. For now, most medical researchers still note the rarity of cats that are infected by the disease and emphasize the minimal risk to humans posed by a BSE infected cat.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can cats contract Mad Cow Disease?

Yes, cats can contract a variant of Mad Cow Disease, known as Feline Spongiform Encephalopathy (FSE). This rare condition is caused by the same infectious agents responsible for Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) in cows. FSE affects the cat's nervous system, leading to behavioral changes and motor dysfunction.

How do cats get infected with Feline Spongiform Encephalopathy?

Cats typically become infected with FSE through the consumption of BSE-contaminated meat products. The disease is linked to the ingestion of prions, abnormal proteins that can cause a cascade of neurodegeneration. Since the outbreak of BSE in cattle, measures have been taken to reduce the risk of transmission to cats and other species.

What are the symptoms of FSE in cats?

Symptoms of FSE in cats include changes in behavior, such as restlessness or aggression, difficulty in coordination, muscle tremors, and ultimately severe neurological impairment. As the disease progresses, it leads to a loss of the ability to move or eat, and it is invariably fatal.

Is there a treatment or cure for FSE in cats?

Unfortunately, there is no treatment or cure for FSE in cats. The disease is progressive and fatal. Veterinary care focuses on providing supportive care to maintain quality of life, but as the disease advances, euthanasia is often considered the most humane option to prevent suffering.

How common is FSE in cats, and should I be worried?

FSE is extremely rare, especially since the implementation of stricter controls on animal feed. According to studies, the incidence of FSE has significantly decreased since the peak of the BSE crisis in the 1990s. Cat owners should consult their veterinarians for the most current information but generally should not be overly concerned about FSE.

Can humans get Mad Cow Disease from cats?

There is no evidence to suggest that humans can contract Mad Cow Disease, or its human variant, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), directly from cats with FSE. vCJD is believed to be contracted through the consumption of infected bovine products, not from pets or other animals that have contracted a variant of the disease.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a AllThingsNature contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By julies — On Jul 08, 2011

I have seen first hand how a cats food can affect their weight. For several years, my cat ate only canned cat food. I never thought too much about it until my vet recommended that she be put on a dry food diet.

After a couple of months I could tell a difference in how much better she felt when I picked her up. She was never too skinny, but just not very solid. I don't know if it was the more expensive cat food or the dry food diet, or maybe a little bit of both, but it sure made a difference for her.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a AllThingsNature contributor, Tricia...
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