RUTH E. THALER-CARTER, CONTRIBUTING WRITER
Most people know that wild animals can give rabies to people, but what they may not realize is that pets like cats, dogs and birds can pass diseases to people. That may sound scary, but prevention isn’t all that hard. Here’s what to know about keeping pets and people safe from each other.
First, don’t panic, says AAHA member Martha Gearhart, DVM, owner of Pleasant Valley Animal Hospital, Pleasant Valley, N.Y. “If [you] practice good hygiene and common sense, the risk is none!” Some zoonotic diseases are spread by bites or scratches, but prompt cleaning should take care of any problems from those incidents.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta agree: “Although animals can carry germs… you are more likely to get some of these germs from contaminated food or water than from your pet or another animal.”
What to Watch For
According to Gearhart, “the biggest concerns are roundworms migrating to children, toxoplasmosis infecting a fetus in the womb, and bartonellosis or cat-scratch fever, which we now know is actually transmitted by fleas.” Ringworm is also fairly common.
Some people are more vulnerable than others, according to J. Scott Weese, DVM, associate professor of Pathobiology, Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph, in Canada. “Children under age 5, elderly people, pregnant women, anyone with compromised immune systems (including people who have had organ transplants).” If that means anyone in your household, tell your doctors about any pets. “Pets are part of the family microbiologically, as well as every other way,” he said. Young animals pose the greatest risk, because they are “far more likely to be infected with parasites or other diseases,” said Gearhart.
The issue is urgent for people with compromised immune systems. Gearhart said research found that “adult dogs and cats were deemed safe” for AIDS patients. “Birds and reptiles were not recommended; puppies and kittens were not recommended.”
What to Do When
The good news is that “most of these diseases are completely preventable and avoidable,” said Gearhart. “If you vaccinate your dog against rabies and other diseases common in your region, you aren’t likely to have to worry about them.” Keeping cats flea-free will help to prevent them from getting bartonellosis. Don’t let the dog lick the kids’ faces. Everyone should wash their hands regularly.
Gearhart urged pet owners to train all family members to wash hands often and avoid hand-to-eye or hand-to-mouth contact after touching animals, dirty cages, bedding and accessories. Cover children’s sandboxes so neighborhood cats don’t use them for litter boxes and clean up dog waste in the backyard. “These safeguards keep pets safe and healthy, as well as people,” she said.
Because it’s hard to keep young children—and even older children and adults—from hands-on contact with pets, reinforcing good hygiene is vital. “Make sure both pets and people are trained properly to reduce bites and scratches, do flea prevention, and have regular veterinarian contact,” said Weese.
And watch out for wild animals, warns the CDC: “You should never adopt wild animals as pets or bring them home. Teach children never to handle unfamiliar animals, wild or domestic, even if the animal appears to be friendly.”
Don't forget about heartworm prevention while tackling the issue of pet diseases. Though you can't get heartworm from your pet, preventing heartworm with a year-round preventive helps keep your pet healthy and your mind at ease. The American Heartworm Society and the Companion Animal Parasite Council recommend that all pets receive year-round heartworm protection so that pets are protected every month. It is critical that doses not be skipped or intervals between doses be extended because this results in an unprotected time during which animals may be exposed to heartworm larvae. Pets should also have annual heartworm testing by a veterinarian prior to prescribing a heartworm medication.
Types of Diseases
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), these risks should be understood by anyone with animals in the home or on the farm. The most common causes are being bitten or scratched by infected animals, including fleas and other vermin, or handling animal waste.
||Campylobacteriosis (Campylobacter spp.)
||Cats, dogs |
|Cat Scratch Disease or cat scratch fever (Bartonella henselae)
||Cat scratches and bites |
|Leptospirosis (Leptospira spp.)
||Dogs, rodents, wildlife, contaminated water or urine of an infected animal |
|Lyme Disease (Borrelia burgdorferi Infection)
||Dogs and ticks |
|Psittacosis (Chlamydia psittaci)
||Pet birds, including parrots and parakeets |
|Salmonellosis (Salmonella spp.)
||Reptiles, birds, dogs, cats |
|Tularemia (Francisella tularensis)
||Rodents and rabbits |
|Yersiniosis (Yersinia enterocolitica)
||Dogs, cats |
||Ringworm (Microsporum spp. and Trichophyton spp.)
||Mammals, dogs, cats |
||Cryptosporidiosis (Cryptosporidium spp.)
||Cats and dogs |
|Giardiasis (Giardia lamblia)
||Various animals and water |
|Hookworm (Ancylostoma caninum, Ancylostoma braziliense, Uncinaria stenocephals)
||Dogs and their environments |
|Roundworm (Toxocara canis, T. cati and Toxocaris leonina)
||Cats, dogs, and their environments |
|Tapeworm Infection (Dipylidium caninum)
||Flea infestations in cats and dogs |
|Toxoplasmosis (Toxoplasma gondii)
||Cats and their environments |
||Mammals, dogs, cats, horses, and wildlife |
||Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (Rickettsia rickettsii)
||Dogs and ticks |
Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) has written and edited projects for AAHA since 2010.
Revised and updated Dec. 18, 2012.
This article originally appeared in PetsMatter November / December 2011, published by the American Animal Hospital Association. Copyright © 2011 AAHA. Find out more.