We share many things with our pets: our homes, affection, beds, secrets and dreams. In return, pet ownership provides us with many health benefits, like improving our fitness, lowering our stress and helping to decrease our loneliness. However, pets can sometimes share “germs” that make us sick — even when they look healthy!
Some things just shouldn’t be shared. So what’s a pet owner to do?
Know your risks. With World Zoonoses Day, July 6, just around the corner, there’s no better time to learn about zoonotic (zoh-uh–not-ik) diseases and what you can do to protect yourself and your family. Read on to learn more!
What are zoonotic diseases and why are they important?
Zoonotic diseases, also known as zoonoses (zoh-uh–noe-seez), are diseases that naturally spread between animals and humans. These diseases can be caused by bacteria, viruses, parasites, fungi and other types of microorganisms. Most often, the term refers to those infections transmitted from animals to people, but the reverse — from people to animals — also occurs.
Zoonoses are common, both in the United States and around the world. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), tens of thousands of Americans contract zoonotic diseases every year. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that at least 61 percent of all known infectious diseases in people are zoonotic in origin, while 75 percent of all new or emerging infectious diseases discovered in the last 10 years are spread from animals. These emerging diseases can come from many different animal species, including pets.
How do zoonotic diseases spread between animals and people?
Depending on the disease and what causes it, zoonoses can be spread in several ways. These include:
- Direct contact, which refers to contact with an infected animal’s saliva, blood, urine, mucus, feces or other body fluids. This includes touching or petting animals and being bitten or scratched by an infected animal.
- Indirect contact, which occurs when you come into contact with objects or surfaces (such as food and water dishes) that an infected animal has rubbed, touched, coughed or sneezed on. Or you could enter an area where an infected animal lives or roams, such as aquarium tank water or a chicken coop.
- Vector-borne transmission, which refers to being bitten by a mosquito, tick or flea.
- Foodborne contact, which occurs when you eat or drink contaminated or unsafe food such as unpasteurized milk, undercooked meat or eggs, or raw fruits and vegetables contaminated with feces.
What are some of the more common zoonotic diseases associated with dogs and cats?
Approximately 150 zoonotic diseases are known to exist, according to the One Health Commission. However, not all of them are spread by dogs and cats. Here’s a partial list of zoonoses that you may have heard about:
- Scabies, also known as sarcoptic mange
- Lyme disease
- Intestinal parasites such as tapeworms, roundworms and hookworms
- Giardia infection
- Cat scratch disease
For a full list of diseases that can be spread between animals and people, check out the CDC’s Healthy Pets, Healthy People website.
How can you protect yourself and your family from zoonotic diseases?
Basic hygiene and common sense can drastically reduce, if not eliminate altogether, the risk of your pet sharing a disease or infection with you or another family member. The CDC and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) have identified some simple steps you can take to protect yourself and your family:
- Help your pets stay healthy by taking them to the veterinarian for regular exams, vaccinations and parasite control.
- Wash your paws! Always wash your hands (and your children’s) with soap and water after being around animals, even if you didn’t touch any animals. Hand washing should also be done after handling your pet’s food, toys and bedding. Hands down, this is one of the most important steps you can take to avoid getting sick and spreading infections to others.
- Clean up after your pet. Keep your cat’s litter box clean, and pick up any feces in your yard and during walks.
- If your pet shows any signs of illness or disease, seek prompt veterinary care.
- Avoid contact with stray or wild animals. This includes keeping your pets and children away from them. These animals are more likely to have diseases that can infect you, your kids and/or your pet.
- Don’t let your pets lick you (or other family members) on the mouth. And teach children not to put their mouths on animals or put any part of the pet’s body in their mouth.
- Prevent bites from mosquitos, ticks and fleas.
- Learn how, and teach your children, to behave safely around dogs and cats to avoid bites and scratches.
Share what you’ve learned with others
The thought of your furry family member sharing an infection or disease with you or others is not a comforting one. On World Zoonoses Day, consider sharing what you’ve learned about zoonotic disease with friends and family, especially those who have frequent contact with animals of any kind. World Zoonoses Day is held every year on July 6 to commemorate the first vaccination of a person against rabies, a zoonotic disease, by Louis Pasteur, a French biologist, on July 6, 1885. The observance also helps raise awareness about diseases and infections that have the potential to spread between animals and people.