We know that pets are more than just companion animals—they are family. We let them sleep in our beds, share our meals from time to time, and lick our faces clean. But love isn’t the only thing going on between people and pets. Humans can contract many illnesses—called zoonotic diseases—from animals, even our furry family members. Thankfully, simple precautions like education, good hygiene, and appropriate veterinary care can greatly reduce your risk.
So, which zoonotic diseases should you be most concerned about?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offer a wealth of information on all transmissible diseases, but if you have pets, here’s what to keep your eye on. Keep in mind that the best way to avoid these diseases is to regularly vaccinate, deworm and keep parasites out of your home.
Ringworm is actually caused by a fungus, not a worm. Dogs and cats, especially puppies and kittens, can infect humans.It may be passed from dogs to cats and vice versa. It may also be passed from dogs or cats to humans and vice versa. This disease causes skin lesions in both pets and people, but cats can be asymptomatic carriers. A contaminated environment is the primary source of infection; therefore, cleaning the pet’s environment—and yours—is an important part of control.
Roundworm infection is a parasitic disease caused by two species of roundworm larvae. Humans can become infected by swallowing dirt that has been contaminated with dog or cat feces containing roundworm eggs. Most infected people never show symptoms, but some do. This disease can cause stomach pain and organ damage, as well as vision problems, as the larvae migrate through the eye. Prevention includes hand washing, regular deworming of pets and prompt disposal of animal feces.
Your pet may become infected with hookworms when he or she swallows hookworm larvae. The larvae may also penetrate the skin, which is typically how humans are infected. This causes a local reaction that is red and itchy. Raised, red tracks may appear in the skin where the larvae have been; these tracks may shift on a daily basis, following the larvae’s movements. In rare cases, certain types of hookworms may infect the intestine, causing abdominal pain, discomfort, and diarrhea. Infected animals pass hookworm eggs in the stool. These eggs can hatch into larvae and both the eggs and larvae may be found in dirt where the animals have been. Humans may become infected while walking barefoot or when exposed skin comes in contact with the contaminated soil. Prevention includes wearing shoes outside, regular deworming of pets and prompt disposal of animal feces.
Giardia is a parasite that lives in the intestines and is passed in the feces. In some humans and animals, it can cause Giardiasis, diarrhea, and cramping. Anything that comes in contact with feces from infected humans or animals can be contaminated with the Giardia parasite. Humans become infected when they swallow the parasite, but it is not possible to become infected through contact with blood. Once outside the body, Giardia can sometimes survive for weeks or months; because of this, environmental disinfection is important.
Leptospirosis is a bacterial disease that affects humans and animals. The primary mode of transmission from pets to humans is through direct or indirect contact with contaminated animal tissues, organs or urine. While many infections go undetected, other cases may be life-threatening. Leptospirosis can lead to kidney and liver problems in both humans and animals; in people, it can also cause meningitis and respiratory distress. Prevention is achieved with a leptospirosis vaccine, which is generally offered as part of a routine vaccination program. Annual boosters are needed to maintain proper immunity.
Rabies is a disease caused by a virus that attacks the brain. It can affect any warm-blooded animal, including dogs, cats, and humans. It is almost always fatal. All mammals can catch rabies, but some are more susceptible than others. Foxes, skunks, and raccoons are particularly prone to rabies and can be carriers. The disease is transmitted by the bite of a rabid animal to another mammal. The best way to prevent rabies is to have your pet vaccinated.
Toxoplasmosis is a parasitic disease associated with cats and their environment. This disease is transmitted to humans through contaminated cat feces. Humans can contract toxoplasmosis by cleaning kitty litter or touching dirt where cats may have been, including garden soil. It can also be transmitted through undercooked meat. Most people who get toxoplasmosis do not get sick, but some will experience swollen lymph nodes, muscle aches and other symptoms similar to those of the flu. Women who are pregnant or thinking about becoming pregnant should be especially careful about this disease because it can infect the fetus and cause a malformation or abortion.
Tapeworms are parasites associated with flea infections in cats and dogs. Humans can contract this parasitic disease when a flea infected with tapeworm eggs is ingested. Most reported cases involve children. The most effective way to prevent infections in pets and humans is through aggressive and thorough flea control.
Salmonellosis is a bacterial disease associated with reptiles, birds, dogs, cats, guinea pigs, horses, farm animals and improper food preparation. Humans most commonly contract salmonellosis by eating contaminated food, such as chicken or eggs. However, animals can also carry the bacteria and pass it in their feces. The growing number of backyard chickens may also increase the incidence of infection. In humans, this disease can cause diarrhea, fever and stomach pain that starts one to three days after infection. These symptoms usually go away after one week. Prevention includes hand washing, particularly after handling reptiles, hamsters, and guinea pigs or visiting a petting zoo, and caution regarding feeding uncooked animal products to pets.
E. coli is a bacterial disease associated with cattle and improper food preparation. The most common type of E. coli infection that causes illness in people is called E. coli O157. While most people get this disease from contaminated food, it can also be passed in the manure of young calves and other cattle. Animals do not have to be ill to transmit the bacteria to humans. Symptoms of infection include watery or bloody diarrhea, fever, abdominal cramps, nausea, and vomiting. The illness may be mild but is more likely to be severe in young children. Hand washing is especially important when handling cattle or visiting a petting zoo.
This blog post originally appeared on The Drake Center