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Sharing Sickness

Posted November 10, 2011

The little puppy you brought home is adorable. She saves the best of her sweet looks and affectionate gestures for you. In turn, you want her to have the best of everything you can give. In this mutual exchange of love, you also need to ensure that the pet doesn't give you something you may not want to take - a zoonotic disease (a disease that can spread from animals to humans).

We usually do not think that we get diseases from animals, but these instances happen more than we think. In many cases, people do not realize that they may have got the infection from their pets, says Dr. Stacy Eckman, lecturer at Texas A&M University's College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM). In some cases, the animals themselves suffer from the disease while in other cases they are not affected by it, she says.

Infestation with intestinal parasites such as roundworms and hookworms are   common zoonotic diseases affecting household pets like dogs and cats.

"A large percentage of the new puppies I see have hookworms and roundworms," Eckman says.

So what are symptoms of intestinal parasitic infection in pets that one should watch out for?

"Poor skin and hair, and a potbellied appearance," she states. These zoonotic diseases are, however, more common in third world countries because of poor sanitary conditions. Proper hygiene is essential to help prevent the spread of these diseases to humans, she says.

Cat owners need to be aware of toxoplasmosis - a disease transmitted through the feces of cats that can affect the unborn child in pregnant women. Eckman recommends that households with pregnant women and cats contact their veterinarian and physician about precautions. Cleaning the kitty's litter box twice a day, preferably by other members of the household is a good option, she says.

One could also get diseases from larger animals as well. Leptospirosis is a bacterial infection that can cause serious liver and kidney problems. The infection can occur through skin contact with infected water contaminated with urine.

"Large animals like cattle, goats, pigs, sheep and horses are reservoirs for this disease and may pass this to our companion animals," Eckman says. "Humans can then acquire this disease from infected urine from their pets. Awareness and education helps prevent zoonotic diseases," she says.

What can pet owners do to prevent these infections?

"When you first get a new pet, contact your veterinarian and have an exam performed. Most veterinarians talk to you about these things to protect yourself and your pets," Eckman says.

Zoonotic diseases need not always be transmitted by pets. Other animals which we encounter can also pass on diseases. For example, bats are potential carriers of rabies, a fatal disease.

Eckman warns that people should never touch bats. Anybody who comes into contact with a bat must contact the local rabies authorities as soon as possible. This is especially important in the case of young children since they may not be aware that they may have been bitten.

"Often times, prophylaxis may be recommended, especially if the sample is too decomposed to test," she says.

The good news is that all these zoonotic diseases can be avoided with a little bit of preparedness. Veterinarians do routine exams for dogs to check for different diseases such as intestinal parasites and external parasites that may transmit blood borne disorders.

Routine vaccinations for both cats and dogs are available with different protocols in different states. Monthly heartworm preventative medications also help prevent against parasites like hookworms and roundworms.

Many zoonotic diseases depend on the local conditions prevalent in the area. So what about Texas?

"We are hot and wet, and so we literally get everything," she says.

Her take-home message: To consult your veterinarian regarding your pet.

"Each patient is different," she stresses. With awareness and care, zoonotic diseases can often be prevented to ensure a healthy pet and a healthy owner.



Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be viewed on the Web at Suggestions for future topics may be directed to

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