We all love our pets- in fact, we love them so much that most of us consider them an important part of the family. Yet, with all those ‘close contact’ snuggles, kisses and hugs we exchange with our beloved pets, we might also be opening ourselves up to the possibility of becoming sick with a serious illness, or even worse, contracting a disease.
That being said, our pets do have many positive effects in our lives that benefit our mental and physical health, as well as our overall well-being. However, the intimate affection we give our pets, along with all their reciprocal licking (complete with germs and bacteria) also have the potential to affect our health. Sometimes, simply sharing our bed, food and even our living space can put us at risk.
It’s important to understand how our pets can affect our health, so we, as pet owners, can take both the necessary precautions and essential steps to prevent us from becoming ill or developing a disease simply from interacting with our pets.
How Pets Can Affect Your Health
While it is rare for people to contract an illness from their pet, there are some diseases that can spread from animals to humans. These animal to human diseases are commonly referred to as Zoonosis or Zoonotic diseases.
What is a zoonotic disease?
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines Zoonosis as “an infectious disease that has jumped from a non-human animal to humans.” Many illnesses and diseases are “transmitted through Zoonotic pathogens that can be bacterial, viral or parasitic, or may involve unconventional agents and can spread to humans through direct contact or through food, water or the environment.” More pointedly, many of these pathogens now represent a major public health problem around the world due to a human’s close relationship and interaction with animals in agriculture, in the natural environment, and as companions we care for in our homes.
Understanding how germs spread between animals and humans
Considering the close connection that owners have with their pets, it’s important to know how people can become infected with germs that cause disease and illness. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the following are the most common ways:
- Direct contact: Coming into contact with the saliva, blood, urine, mucous, feces, or other body fluids of an infected animal. Examples include petting or touching animals, and bites or scratches.
- Indirect contact: Coming into contact with areas where animals live and roam, or objects or surfaces that have been contaminated with germs. Examples include aquarium tank water, pet habitats, chicken coops, barns, plants, and soil, as well as pet food and water dishes.
- Vector-borne: Being bitten by a tick, or an insect like a mosquito or a flea.
- Foodborne: Each year, 1 in 6 Americans get sick from eating contaminated food. Eating or drinking something unsafe, such as unpasteurized (raw) milk, undercooked meat or eggs, or raw fruits and vegetables that are contaminated with feces from an infected animal. Contaminated food can cause illness in people and animals, including pets.
- Waterborne: Drinking or coming in contact with water that has been contaminated with feces from an infected animal.
Diseases and Illness You Can Catch from Your Pet
Although there are a wide range of diseases that can be transmitted between animals and people- many, like rabies, are 100% preventable through vaccinations, medications and other methods. A complete list can be found on the CDC’s website: https://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/diseases/index.html
Here are some of the most common diseases people can get from their domesticated pets:
RABIES: Rabies is a deadly neurologic disease caused by a virus that spreads primarily through bites of infected animals. Rabies is 100% preventable when a pet is vaccinated.
How it spreads- Rabies spreads through contact with saliva from an infected animal, usually through a scratch or bite.
Signs in dogs & cats- Often dogs and cats will experience sudden behavioral changes and progressive paralysis. They may also have restlessness, panting, or poor appetite. They may attack other animals, people, or objects.
Signs in people- Symptoms of rabies can appear days to months after exposure. If you have been bitten by a dog/cat or another animal, you should wash the wound and seek medical attention immediately.
TICK-BORNE DISEASES: Both cats and dogs are at risk for infections, including Lyme disease, tularemia, ehrlichiosis, babesiosis, and others. There are many tick prevention products on the market for your pet that can greatly reduce the risk of contracting a tick-borne disease.
How it spreads- Transmission occurs through the bite of an infected tick. During the feeding process, small amounts of saliva pass from the tick into the skin of the animal or person.
Signs in dogs & cats- Signs can vary depending on the type of infection, or your pet may not show any signs of illness. However, if a dog contracts Lyme disease, they can show signs of leg lameness, fever, and decreased appetite.
Signs in people- Symptoms in people can vary, but typically include fever, chills, body aches, and sometimes a rash. Some tick-borne diseases can be very serious and/or deadly. Seek medical care if you have been bitten by a tick or develop any of the symptoms.
RINGWORM: Ringworm is an infection caused by a fungus that can infect the skin, hair, or nails of humans and animals.
How it spreads- Transmission is through direct contact with an infected animal or person (touching).
Signs in dogs- Dogs with ringworm infection develop bald, scaly patches with broken hairs or acne-like bumps on the skin. Affected areas typically include ear tips, face, tail, and feet. Some dogs may carry the fungus and not show any signs of disease.
Signs in cats- Some cats might not show signs of ringworm infection, but others typically have small areas of hair loss around their ears, face, or legs with scaly or crusty skin. Kittens are most commonly affected.
Signs in people- Infections in people are usually itchy and can appear on almost any part of the body. Redness, scaling, cracking of the skin, or a ring-shaped rash may occur. If the infection is on the scalp or beard, hair may fall out. Infected nails can become discolored, thick, or could become brittle.
SALMONELLOSIS: Salmonellosis is caused by Salmonella bacteria, which are most commonly spread through contaminated food.
How it spreads- People and animals can get Salmonella by eating contaminated food, drinking contaminated water, or by touching infected animals, their feces or contaminated items/surfaces.
Signs in dogs- Dogs generally don’t get sick from Salmonella infection, but those that do may have diarrhea,
vomiting, fever, loss of appetite or may seem lethargic.
Signs in cats- Adults cats typically do not show signs of infection. Infected kittens may have diarrhea.
Signs in people- People may experience diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps. Symptoms usually start within 6 hours–4 days after infection and last 4–7 days.
LEPTOSPIROSIS: Leptospirosis is an infectious bacterial disease that can affect both dogs and humans. Dogs can carry the bacteria in their urine. Vaccinations are available to protect against some strains of leptospirosis.
How it spreads- The bacteria that cause leptospirosis spread through the urine of infected animals, which can get into water or soil and survive there for weeks to months. People get infected through contact with urine or other body fluids (except saliva) from infected animals, or through contact with water, soil, or other materials (such as animal bedding) contaminated with urine from infected animals.
Signs in dogs- Generally speaking, most dogs do not show any signs of illness. For dogs that do show symptoms, they could include: fever, tiredness, vomiting, diarrhea, lack of appetite, conjunctivitis, jaundice, or changes in urination (increase/decrease in urination or difficulty urinating at all).
Signs in people- People might not have any symptoms, but those who do will usually become sick within 2 days to 4 weeks of exposure. Symptoms include high fever, headache, chills, muscle aches, vomiting, jaundice, conjunctivitis, abdominal pain, diarrhea, or a rash. A small number of people with leptospirosis can have more severe effects, such as liver and kidney failure, hemorrhagic pneumonia, and even death. Early treatment with antibiotics is important as it can reduce the duration and severity of illness.
GIARDIASIS: Giardia is a parasite that lives in the intestines and is passed in the feces. It can be found on surfaces or in water, food or soil that has been contaminated by poop of an infected animal.
How it spreads- Giardia spreads through swallowing microscopic feces containing the parasite following contact with an infected person or animal or by drinking water/eating food that has been contaminated with poop from infected animals.
Signs in dogs & cats- May have diarrhea, greasy stools, or become dehydrated.
Signs in people- People may experience diarrhea, gas, abdominal discomfort, nausea, and vomiting. However, it is possible to be infected and have no symptoms of illness.
TOXOPLASMOSIS: Toxoplasmosis is a disease caused by a parasite found in soil, water, meat, or feces from an infected animal, particularly cats.
How it spreads- Transmission occurs through contact with cat feces. Cats become infected by eating infected rodents, birds, or other small animals. The parasite then sheds in the cat’s feces, contaminating the environment or the cat’s litterbox. Pregnant women should avoid cleaning litter boxes because exposure could put their unborn child at risk for birth defects.
Signs in cats- Cats with toxoplasmosis rarely appear sick but can shed the parasite in feces for as long as 3 weeks after infection.
Signs in people- Healthy people with toxoplasmosis don’t generally have symptoms, but some may have mild flu-like symptoms. Those with weakened immune systems can have more serious complications-including brain disease.
CAT SCRATCH DISEASE (CSD): An infection caused by the bacteria Bartonella henselae, and less commonly other Bartonella species.
How it spreads- Cats can become infected through flea bites, fights with other infected cats, or blood transfusions. Transmission to human occurs when exposed to the bacteria through the scratch or lick of an infected cat.
Signs in cats- Infected cats do not appear sick, but can have a mild fever that lasts 2-3 days
Signs in people- When exposed to the CDS bacteria, it may cause a mild infection at the site of the scratch. It can also cause fever, possible eye infection, muscle pain or more severe symptoms.
How Great Is the Risk?
Because Zoonotic pathogens can spread to humans through any contact point with domestic, agricultural or wild animals, everyone has the potential to become ill from a zoonotic disease. However, there are some who are more at risk than others:
- Children younger than 5
- Adults older than 65
- Persons infected with HIV or suffering from AIDS
- Pregnant women
- Patients being treated with chemotherapy or radiation therapy
- People with chronic diseases or congenital immune system deficiency
- People who have received organ/bone marrow transplants
Prevention Tips on Staying Healthy with PetsProper hand washing
- Washing your hands immediately after being around animals, (even if you didn’t touch them) is one of the best preventative measures you can take to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others .Many germs are spread by not washing hands properly- always use soap and clean running water. If not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
- Keep up-to-date on all vaccines and medications, as well as routine check-ups with your veterinarian.
- Keep your pet free of fleas and/or ticks by administering flea/tick medications on a regular basis- especially during the warmer months.
Bites and scratches
- Try to avoid bites and scratches from any animal. If you do happen to get bitten or scratched, clean the area immediately with soap and water. If bite/scratch is serious or becomes red, painful, or swollen, seek medical attention right away.
Keeping your pets clean
- Although cats are a bit more of a challenge, bathing your pets will not only keep them clean, but also give you an opportunity to examine them for signs of illness- specifically skin rashes and lesions.
De-worm your pets
- Heartworm preventatives for both your dog and cat do more than just prevent heartworm- many de-wormer medications can also prevent roundworms and other parasites.
Interaction with other animals
- Use extreme caution when kissing, snuggling or holding pets you are unfamiliar with-especially if their hygiene habits and vaccine status is unknown.
Keep your pet’s water and food dishes clean
- Give your pets separate water bowls and dishes to eat from. Be sure to wash both the water and food bowls regularly.
- Wash pet bedding often. If your pet sleeps with you, wash your bedding regularly and always use the hottest water cycle for a deep clean and elimination of germs.
Clean up after animals properly
- Always remove dog waste from your yard, as well as private and public spaces. Scoop cat litter daily and change it at least once a week. Pregnant women should never clean cat litter.
Keeping your pet healthy is essential in keeping both yourself and your family healthy!
One of the most important things to keep in mind is… with all the amazing health benefits our beloved fur babies provide us, cohabitating with them far outweighs the potential for contracting any of these diseases.
Equally important, simple precautions such as becoming educated, practicing good hygiene, and making routine appointments for veterinary care will greatly reduce your risk.