Americans love their household pets. We treat them like family, kiss their wet noses and share our bowl of ice cream with them. But can we get ill from all of that closeness?
Fortunately, you are at much greater risk of contracting an illness from a fellow human than your pet. But there are a number of diseases, including some parasites; that you should be aware of.
Every year, thousands of people will in fact get sick from contact with animals, including Fido and Fluffy. These diseases actually have a name. They are referred to as zoonotic diseases, and are responsible for about 3 out of 5 new human illnesses. 100 of the 250 known zoonotic diseases actually come from domesticated pets.
Note that while most people can recover easily from these conditions with simple treatments, certain people can be more greatly affected. Anyone with a weakened immune system (cancer patients undergoing treatment, someone diagnosed with HIV, the elderly, etc.), children under the age of 5, pregnant women and adults over the age of 65, are at greater risk.
In most cases, the transmission of the disease is due to direct contact with the saliva or feces of an infected animal. Other methods of transmission are through infected fleas and ticks, as well as through contact with water or food that has been contaminated.
Here are a few of the more common issues that people may experience related to household pets. They are listed based on the type of infection. A discussion relating to what you can do to minimize the risk of infections will follow.
Ringworm is the most common fungal infection that can be transmitted from a pet to a human. Ringworm isn’t a worm; its name comes from its appearance, which is a round, itchy area with a ring around the edge of the lesion. An infected pet drops fungal spores from their fur or skin, the spores are incredibly contagious. The spores can be infectious for months, and small children (often found playing in the dirt or crawling on the ground) are most likely to come into contact with the spores and become infected.
Antifungal medications are needed to resolve ringworm. In addition, the environment must be continuously cleaned (bedding washed, vacuumed, etc.) and sanitized.
Protozoans are single-celled organisms that can’t be seen with the naked eye. You probably have heard about toxoplasmosis, which is the most common protozoal disease transmitted by cats to humans. The cat gets the disease through a contaminated source, possibly water or through eating infected rodents or birds. Once infected the cat sheds the parasite in its feces for several weeks. The issue then becomes that the parasite can live for many months, contaminating the soil, garden, water, etc. And if an indoor/outdoor cat, the cat can bring the parasite into its litter box.
Toxoplasmosis affects people with weakened immune systems, so can be dangerous for infants whose mothers are infected during or after pregnancy. Besides becoming contaminated through pet feces, people can become infected by eating raw or undercooked meat or through eating contaminated unwashed vegetables.
Another pet related protozoal infection is giardia. Giardia can be found in dog feces and comes from their drinking dirty infected water.
Prescription medications are typically used to address protozoal infections.
Intestinal parasites from pets can cause disease in people, particularly children. Infected pets may defecate on a lawn resulting in a barefoot child coming in contact with hatched eggs! Two common intestinal parasites are hookworm and roundworm.
Hookworm contaminated soil, lawn or sandboxes can result in cutaneous larva migrans, a skin disease causing an itchy rash.
Roundworm contamination can result in a potentially serious issue involving an infected child’s eyes, called visceral larva migrans. Children playing in contaminated soil, who then put soiled fingers in their mouth, can consume roundworm eggs, causing this disease. One roundworm can produce up to 85,000 eggs a day.
Fleas are a common parasite for household pets, in particular those that also go outdoors. Flea bites can cause inflammation and itching in humans, but fleas can also transmit diseases. If Fido or Fluffy inadvertently ingest a flea while grooming, and that flea is infected, your pet can also become infected (for example, with tapeworms).
Ticks can carry Lyme disease, which is a sometimes serious bacterial infection requiring antibiotics.
Pets need to be dewormed, and people may need anti-parasitic medications for roundworm. Anthelminthic medications are used for pets and people with hookworm.
Salmonella is a fairly well known food-borne illness; people can get it from eating undercooked, contaminated foods such as eggs and chicken. But salmonella can also be passed to a human from their contaminated pet, especially if Fluffy hunts birds or rodents outside. If Fluffy eats a contaminated animal then Fluffy will pass along the salmonella bacteria in her stool. Pet turtles, reptiles and baby chicks are also sources.
Cat-scratch disease is a common zoonotic disease caused by infected cats. Cats become infected from flea bites as well as flea dirt getting into an open wound. Some 25,000 people find themselves diagnosed with cat-scratch disease each year in the US. According to the CDC about 40% of cats carry the cat-scratch disease bacterium, Baronella henselae, at some time in their lives. Kittens are more likely to have the bacterium and are more likely to scratch and bite, so they are more likely to pass along the infection to children.
Antibiotics and anti-diarrheals may be prescribed for people who contract a bacterial infection from their pet.
Most viruses are species specific so a pet virus can’t typically hurt their owner. Some examples of such species-specific, yet common viruses are feline leukemia, feline infectious peritonitis, parvovirus (species-specific), etc.
One virus, however, that can be passed on from pets to humans is rabies. Rabies infections occur when an infected animal (often a bat or wild animal) bites a pet or human. If your pet is infected, they can pass the infection along to you. Rabies is a serious viral infection that attacks the entire nervous system and is usually fatal in animals. Preventative pet vaccinations are required in most areas and are recommended even if your pet is an indoor only pet.
Other health hazards from household pets
There are other health hazards that can be associated with having pets in your home:
• Allergies and asthma
• Insecticide exposure from flea collars and other flea/tick products
• Drowning (crawlers can find and even drown in a water bowl)
What can you do to minimize your health risks for zoonotic diseases?
The good news is that most of the risk can be reduced with good “people and pet hygiene” and by following some simple preventative guidelines:
• Wash hands after handling pets.
• Do not come into contact with pet saliva or feces.
• Monitor cat bites and scratches, watching for infection, and wash with soap and water. Seek medical attention should infection be present.
• Wear gloves while gardening and cleaning out litter boxes.
• Cover children’s sandboxes when not being used.
• Wash vegetables before eating.
• Use tick repellent and examine yourself and your pet after being outside.
• Pregnant women and immunosuppressed individuals should be particularly cautious around litter boxes, outside gardens and lawn areas (anywhere pets are present), etc.
• Use parasite control for fleas and ticks. Examine pets for ticks after being outside.
• Clean litter boxes daily; periodically wash litter box with detergent.
• Attempt to keep specific areas of your yard “pet-poop-free” and have kids play there. For remaining areas, keep feces cleaned up regularly.
• Do not permit your pet to drink out of toilet or play with/consume feces.
Preventative health measures when living with pets
• Schedule annual checkups for your pets. Seek medical attention should your pet become ill.
• Keep rabies vaccinations current.
• Keep cats indoors; prevent pets from hunting wildlife, birds and rodents.
• Do not feed pets raw foods (meat, poultry, eggs, dairy, etc.).
• Have new pets examined by vet and keep quarantined if infected.
• Consider not having turtles, reptiles and baby chicks; especially around small children who may not practice good hygiene rules.
• Be aware of pet supplies getting into the hands of toddlers (water bowls, flea products, cat litter box, etc.).