Diseases Spread Between You and Your Pet

A small brown dog laying in the grass, pet cancer

As animal lovers, we enjoy spending as much time around our pets as possible. It is important to remember, however, that there are a number of infectious diseases transmittable between pets and their owners. Here are some zoonotic diseases relevant to our community, how they are transmitted, and what you should do to prevent them from spreading.

One of the more familiar zoonotic diseases, rabies, is a viral infection transmitted through an animal bite and attacks the brain. “This is by far one of the most serious infectious diseases that a person may get from a pet, because it is usually fatal,” said Dr. Renata Ivanek-Miojevic, assistant professor in epidemiology at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. “Luckily, widespread vaccination against rabies in the Western world has reduced occurrence of this infection in dogs and cats and has thus protected human health.” However, the seriousness of the infection should be a reminder to keep our pets vaccinated and avoid contact with stray animals or animals of unknown vaccination status. ”More than 55,000 people die of rabies every year mostly in Asia and Africa. Dogs are the source of the vast majority of human rabies deaths,” said Ivanek-Miojevic.

Another, fairly common, disease, salmonellosis, is a bacterial infection of many animal species. Of particular concern is that pet reptiles and amphibians are often infected. Our dogs and cats can acquire salmonellosis as well through eating raw meat and contaminated commercial dry pet food. “People can get infected by touching animals and surfaces contaminated with the feces of infected animals,” said Ivanek-Miojevic. “An infected person may suffer from abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting and fever, and it can be life threatening to very young people or older individuals.” The best way to prevent the transmission of salmonellosis is to thoroughly wash your hands after handling animals, and to always keep your pets’ living quarters clean. As per recommendation by CDC, reptiles and amphibians should be kept out of households that include children aged <5 years or immunocompromised persons.

Our feline companions can carry zoonotic diseases as well. Toxoplasmosis, for example, is a parasitic infection transmitted through cat’s feces. Cats can get infected by eating rodents, birds, or raw meat or by coming into contact with contaminated soil. “Healthy people that acquire toxoplasmosis usually do not have symptoms, but the parasite remains in their body in an inactive state and can be reactivated if the person becomes immunosuppressed,” said Ivanek-Miojevic. “Worse, a woman that acquired the infection during pregnancy may not experience symptoms, but infection can transmit to her baby and result in a miscarriage, a stillborn child, blindness or mental disability of the child.” To prevent such transmission, it is best to wear disposable gloves and thoroughly wash hands after changing cat litter.

Cat scratch disease, or bartonellosis, is a bacterial infection that we can receive from cats. Cats may harbor infected fleas that carry the bartonella bacteria, which can then be transmitted to people if bitten or scratched by the cat. “An infected person develops a mild infection at the point of a cat scratch or bite and lymph nodes around the head, neck, and upper limbs become swollen,” said Ivanek-Miojevic. “To prevent transmission of the infection, people, particularly immunocompromised individuals, should avoid rough play with cats, particularly strays and kittens, in order to prevent scratches.”  To play it safe, you should always treat your cats for fleas and do your best to keep them away from strays.

Both toxocariasis and campylobacter infections are spread through accidental contact with feces of infected animals.  Toxocariasis, a parasitic infection of dogs and cats, may transmit to a person when the animal sheds toxocara eggs in their feces and a person accidentally swallows dirt that has been contaminated with it. “To prevent the infection, people, particularly children, should wash their hands after playing in the dirt or in uncovered sandboxes,” said Ivanek- Miojevic. “Feces of dogs and cats should be disposed of promptly and pets should be regularly dewormed, particularly if they spend time outdoors and may become infected again.”

The bacterial infection campylobacter is another zoonotic disease that can be spread through food and hands contaminated by infected animal’s feces. Aside from occasional diarrhea, animals often do not show significant symptoms of the infection. If a person becomes infected, they may also develop diarrhea, which can occasionally be accompanied by fever. Washing your hands after interacting or coming into contact with pets is a must to prevent the spread of this infection.

“In summary, our pets can have a wide variety of infectious diseases, many of which could spread from pets to people,” Ivanek- Miojevic said. “In order to protect human health, pets should be regularly vaccinated against rabies and treated against intestinal parasites and fleas.  The closer we share our lives with our pets, the more important becomes their health to our own.”

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 vetmed.tamu.edu/news/pet-talk. Suggestions for future topics may be directed to editor@cvm.tamu.edu.

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