Can My Pet Make Me Sick? Understanding Zoonotic Diseases

July 24, 2023

Did you know that animals can pass diseases and parasites, called zoonoses, to people? And if your dog or cat has a zoonotic disease, you may unknowingly be exposed to potentially harmful pathogens. 

Here's what to know about zoonotic diseases, health risks, signs, and prevention.BVET Blog Can Pet Make Me Sick_Canva 2

Common Pet-Related Health Concerns

"Zoonotic disease" is a catch-all term for illnesses in animals that can be shared with people. The sickness may come from viruses, bacteria, parasites, protozoa, or fungi.

Some of these pathogens have adapted specifically to infect certain animals. Sometimes, they treat them as hosts to infect another animal (their real target).

Still, others can more broadly infect anyone who comes in contact with them.

How people and animals respond to diseases can vary. Sometimes pets show no outward signs of infection until they're very sick. From heartworms to ringworms to feline immunodeficiency (FIV), your pet can carry many diseases, especially if they spend time outdoors.

According to the CDC, the most concerning diseases that animals pass to humans include:

  • Zoonotic Flu (virus) (e.g., bird flu, swine flu typically)
  • Salmonellosis (bacteria commonly hosted in birds, rodents, and reptiles)
  • West Nile Virus (spread by mosquitos)
  • Rabies (virus)
  • Brucellosis (bacteria)
  • Plague (virus hosted by rodents)
  • Lyme Disease (bacteria hosted by ticks)

While the above are the most concerning, they aren't the most common. You're much more likely to catch zoonotic diseases from cats and dogs since so many people have them. Several factors may make this transmission not only possible but probable. If you're like a lot of people, you may:

  • Ignore where their tongues and noses have been
  • Cuddle them and kiss their faces
  • Share food with them
  • Let them lick, scratch, or love-bite you
  • Share a bed with them
  • Clean up pet waste without washing your hands 100% of the time
  • Let their "litter feet" up on counters and tables
  • Let the kids play with them

Ultimately, we treat pets like family and try not to think about the risks most of the time. But it's important to know that pets can make you sick and what to look for.

 

Types of Zoonotic Diseases

Bacterial Infections

Three of the most common types of bacterial zoonotic diseases are salmonella, Pasteurella, and cat scratch disease. Additionally, leptospirosis can be a concern.

Salmonella

Salmonella can be present in animal waste, including dogs and cats. Infection in humans may cause severe intestinal cramping, vomiting, and diarrhea. 

To prevent salmonella exposure, wash your hands and surfaces pets walk on frequently. If your pet gets on the table/counter, always disinfect it before preparing food.

Pasteurella

Pasteurella is found in most cat and dog mouths and passed through bites. Common symptoms include redness and swelling at the bite site that may require medical attention. A severe case could cause sepsis and loss of a limb. 

If a cat or dog bites you, even in play, wash that wound out immediately and apply an antibiotic ointment. Verify that they're current on their rabies shots. And see your doctor if the area feels warm and tender.

Cat Scratch Disease

Cat scratch disease is most common in flea-infested cats. Immediate signs may be redness and swelling. If your body can't fight the invasion, you may develop a fever, headache, and joint pain. You need antibiotics immediately. 

To prevent cat scratch disease, keep your cat's flea prevention up-to-date.

Leptospirosis

Leptospirosis is a bacterial infection that is spread through urine to mucous membranes. Even touching an area that was exposed and then scratching your nose or eye can be enough to spread disease. This disease causes fever and malaise and, in severe cases, can affect the kidneys and liver.

For dogs, there is a vaccine available that can help protect both them and the family if anyone is exposed.

Parasitic Infections

Common types of parasitic infections that pets can pass to humans are fleas, scabies, and worms.

Fleas

Fleas are parasites that infest animals, homes, and people. Fleas carry all kinds of diseases, including another parasite, the tapeworm. Keep flea prevention up-to-date.

Scabies

Scabies will cause an itchy skin rash in humans, and you'll probably need an anti-parasitic medication to get rid of it. Scabies is also much more likely in flea-infested pets.

Intestinal Parasites

Roundworms and hookworms cause skin rash in humans and more rarely can migrate to places like the eye or central nervous system. They are commonly passed from mama pets to their offspring. So, when you get a new puppy or kitten, have your vet test their stool and treat for any parasites that are found.

If your cat or dog plays outside, they could become reinfected. For this reason, it's important to keep them up-to-date on their worm-prevention medicine and test their stool at least once per year.

Toxoplasmosis

If you happen to be pregnant, you may have heard about these protozoa from your doctor. It is a relatively common parasite that uses the cat as a host. Most cats will not develop signs of disease and, instead, just shed the protozoa into the environment. Exposing your baby to this parasite at the wrong time can be devastating.

The good news is that it’s relatively easy to prevent exposure. Good hand sanitation when cleaning up after your cat is paramount, or even better, have someone else in the home be responsible for taking care of it.

Viral Infections

Rabies is a deadly disease for humans and pets. Once symptoms begin, there is no cure.

The only way to test for the disease is by inspecting brain tissue. This means the animal must be euthanized. The good news is that if you can demonstrate that your pet has been vaccinated on a recommended schedule, then a program of quarantine is generally allowed. While inconvenient, it’s certainly better than having a beloved pet euthanized for testing.  

Rabies and other viral vaccines are affordable and essential for preventing rabies and other zoonotic viruses.

 

High-Risk Groups and Precautions

The truth is you're surrounded by infectious organisms every day. Your immune system can ward a lot of things off, but some people are more vulnerable, such as:

  • Pregnant women and unborn babies
  • Infants and young children
  • Immunocompromised individuals

To reduce your risk:

  • Ensure proper handling and disposal of pet waste
  • Wash your hands after every time you pick up animal waste
  • Learn proper handwashing techniques and wash your children's hands several times a day
  • Obtain regular veterinary care and vaccinations

Many human-acquired zoonotic diseases from dogs and cats are carried in their fecal matter. These are some of the most treatable types of infections, so every pet should have regular fecal testing.

Ballantyne Veterinary Clinic in South Charlotte can help you set up fecal testing for your pet to ensure they — and you — stay healthy. 

 

Maintaining a Healthy Relationship With Your Pet

Keeping a clean home environment is vital to maintaining a healthy relationship with your pet. 

Children are particularly susceptible because they have underdeveloped immune systems and often put their hands in their mouths. In fact, a case report published in ScienceDirect discussed a previously healthy 2-year-old boy who was found deceased in bed after being diagnosed with a respiratory infection that had spread from the family cats. 

While this is, of course, an extreme case, the boy lived in what the article calls an "unkempt home," showing how important maintaining a clean environment is.

Most pet owners, despite the risks of zoonotic disease, will continue to spend their lives with their beloved pets. In most cases, there is no reason that you would have to give up your pets due to the risks of zoonosis, but that doesn’t mean you should take basic precautions such as:  

  • Maintaining a decluttered and clean living environment
  • Washing any linens your pet has access to (their bed, your bed, etc.) frequently and steam cleaning your furniture from time to time
  • Keeping dogs and cats out of areas where your food is stored, prepared, and served
  • Vacuuming and changing out your air conditioner filters on a schedule to keep allergens at bay

Most importantly, remember that regular veterinary checkups and preventive care are vital parts of any strategy to reduce the passing of zoonotic diseases to humans. Responsible, informed pet ownership seeks to promote the overall health and well-being of the entire family, whether the members have two legs or four.

 

Help Keep Your Pet and Yourself Safe

Yes, you can catch a zoonotic infection from your pet. Some people are more vulnerable, so taking precautions to prevent the spread becomes even more important.

With that said, good hygiene and keeping up with your pet's routine health check appointments can significantly reduce your risks. And don’t forget — routine fecal evaluations are extremely important. 

Contact Ballantyne Vet today to schedule an appointment. Our compassionate staff is ready to provide expert care so that your beloved pet stays safe, happy, and healthy.

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