Sharing our homes with our four-legged companions provides many physical and mental benefits—not to mention the heartwarming feeling when your devoted pet greets you at the door. But, these same furry housemates can occasionally transmit serious illnesses known as zoonotic diseases to you and your family.

What are zoonotic diseases?

Zoonotic diseases (i.e., zoonoses) are pathogens, including viruses, bacteria, parasites, and fungi, that can spread from animals to people. Living in close contact with your cat or dog means you and your family can be at risk for zoonotic diseases.

Scientists estimate that animals can spread more than 6 of every 10 known infectious diseases in people, and three of every four new or emerging infectious diseases. However, the actual incidence of disease transmission from pets to people is fairly low. By understanding important facts about zoonotic diseases, and keeping your pet healthy, you can minimize your family’s exposure risk. 

Which common zoonotic diseases can harm my pet and my family?

While more than 100 zoonotic diseases are recognised, many are rare, especially in North America. Some of the most common, well-known zoonotic diseases in the United States that pets can spread to people include:

  • Ringworm
  • Salmonellosis
  • Leptospirosis
  • Cat scratch disease
  • Toxoplasmosis
  • Lyme disease
  • Giardiasis 
  • Cryptosporidium infection
  • Campylobacter infection
  • Roundworms
  • Hookworms
  • Tapeworms
  • Sarcoptic mange
  • Rabies

How do pathogens spread between pets and people?

Since you and your furry pal are in such close contact, you should understand how you and your family may be at risk for zoonotic disease transmission. Some ways pathogens can spread from your pet to you include:

  • Direct contact — Petting or touching an animal, including your cat or dog, can inadvertently expose you by coming in contact with their saliva, blood, urine, feces, mucus, or other bodily fluids that can contain pathogens. If you’re bitten or scratched, you can also fall ill from zoonotic infection.
  • Indirect contact — Indirect contact refers to touching surfaces an infected animal has contaminated. Examples include food and water dishes, leashes, litter boxes, bedding, aquarium tank water, chicken coops, barns, plants, and soil.
  • Vector-borne — If your pet carries a tick or flea inside your home, these pests can bite and infect you with disease. 
  • Foodborne — Contaminated food sources include unpasteurized milk, undercooked meat or eggs, and raw fruits and vegetables that have been contaminated with feces from an infected animal. Foodborne diseases can cause illness not only in you, but also your pet. This is why adding raw eggs or meat to your pet’s diet can be unsafe. 
  • Waterborne — You and your pet can both become infected with a zoonotic disease by drinking or coming in contact with water that has been contaminated with feces or urine from an infected animal. 

Who is at a higher risk from zoonotic diseases?

While anyone, and any pet, can get sick from a zoonotic disease, some groups of people and pets are at a higher risk of developing serious illness. People who may be more susceptible include children younger than 5, adults older than 65, people with weakened immune systems, and pregnant women, with pets in similar categories also at increased illness risk. Ensure you take proper steps to protect you and your pet from exposure to zoonotic diseases. 

How can you protect yourself and your family?

You can come in contact with animals in many places, such as petting zoos, fairs, schools, stores, parks, and your own backyard, as well as your pet. Pathogens are easily accessible, so protecting yourself and your pet is essential for good health. Fortunately, you can protect your family from zoonotic diseases in many ways, including:

  • Practicing good hygiene — Washing your hands with soap and water is critical for destroying pathogens, so ensure you scrub your hands thoroughly after you have been with any animal, to remove any infectious agents. While an alcohol-based hand sanitizer will do in a pinch, wash your hands with soap and water as soon as possible. 
  • Refraining from interacting with pets you don’t know — Pets can be uncomfortable around strangers, and scratch or bite if they’re forced to interact. In addition, you won’t know the vaccination and health status of strange pets, and you can easily bring home infectious disease to your own pet, or become infected yourself.
  • Avoiding interacting with wildlife — Although that nest of baby bunnies under your garden shed is adorable, do not cuddle them. Wildlife is best left wild! If a wild animal is acting odd, do not approach them—call your local wildlife agent.
  • Picking up after your pet — Picking up after your pet will help prevent the spread of parasitic infections and other infectious diseases, especially since other pet owners are then more likely to do the same. Ensure you wash your hands thoroughly after cleaning up after your pet, to eliminate pathogens.
  • Vaccinating your pet — Some infectious diseases, like leptospirosis and rabies, can be prevented through regular vaccination. Keep your furry pal safe by staying up to date on essential vaccines.
  • Administering parasite prevention to your pet — In addition to shielding your pet from diseases transmitted by fleas, ticks, and mosquitoes, protect them—and yourself—from intestinal parasites with parasite preventives given on time every month.

Ensuring your furry pal remains current on essential vaccinations, and receives parasite prevention on schedule, are the best ways to prevent zoonotic disease transmission between your pet and your family. Also, remember that simply practicing good hygiene also provides good protection. 

Contact your primary care veterinarian to schedule regular preventive care, and contact our team at Urgent Pet Care Omaha if you are concerned that your pet has contracted a zoonotic illness, and needs after-hours care.