CUDDLING a kitten could give pet owners a life-threatening infection, a study has found.
Known as 'cat-scratch disease', the illness can cause an intense fever, pustules and - if complications develop - can even result in death.
Caused by bacteria transmitted from cat to cat by fleas, humans risk contracting the disease by kissing or nuzzling cats, or by being scratched or bitten.
The large-scale survey of the disease was conducted by the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention in the US, and revealed kittens and strays were especially susceptible to carrying the bacteria.
Dr Christina Nelson, of the CDC, said: "The scope and impact of the disease is a little bit larger than we thought.
"Cat-scratch is preventable. If we can identify the populations at risk and the patterns of disease, we can focus the prevention efforts."
Doctors have recommended that cat owners always wash their hands after stroking their pet, and avoid any contact between their own animals and stray cats.
The study, which took place over eight years and surveyed over 13,000 cases of cat-scratch disease, found the annual incidence of the disease was 4.5 outpatient diagnoses per 100,000 population, which is higher than expected, but still quite rare.
Only a small minority of the cases documented resulted in death, though this was a more likely outcome if patients had hesitated to seek medical help.
Contracting the disease is much more likely in warmer regions, where fleas can more easily reproduce and spread.
The most at-risk group is children aged between five and nine years old, among whom there were 9.4 outpatient diagnoses per 100,000 population.
Parents have been advised to discourage their children from kissing and rough play with kittens, in households with both cats and young children.
Fleas typically thrive during the hot and humid summer months, but autumn brings equal danger as central heating systems provide a perfect environment for dormant eggs to hatch.
The easiest way to prevent the disease being spread is to protect pets from fleas. This is possible with many over-the-counter remedies, though some suggest a more natural method: giving cats a bath of vinegar, lemon juice or apple cider.