Pets can be great friends. They're good listeners, they
encourage you to exercise, and they're always on your side when
you argue with your parents. But, like people, pets can carry
infections, and sometimes these can be transmitted to people. Keep
reading to find out how you and your pet can stay infection
How Do Pets Spread Infections?
Some illnesses that pets get - such as feline leukemia, FIV, and
heartworms - can't be transmitted to people. But pets can carry
certain bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi that can transmit
infections to people. Infections from animals can be particularly
dangerous to babies and young kids, pregnant women, elderly people,
and people whose immune systems have been weakened by illness or
disease (such as
-seez) is the name for infections that can be passed from animals
to humans. People get zoonoses when they are bitten or scratched or
come into contact with an animal's waste products, saliva, or
dander (flakes from hair, feathers, or skin).
Pets may also get ticks and fleas in their fur, and these
insects can carry diseases - like Lyme disease or Rocky Mountain
spotted fever - that may make humans sick.
Dogs and Cats
It's hard to believe that your canine companion or feline
friend could be guilty of anything other than sleeping too much,
but sometimes cats and dogs can pass infections on to humans.
is one type of infection dogs, cats, hamsters, birds, and certain
farm animals can transmit to humans.
is a bacteria that can live in the digestive systems of animals.
People who come into contact with
bacteria can experience unpleasant symptoms like diarrhea,
abdominal pain, and fever.
infections most often happen when a person eats contaminated
foods, such as undercooked meat or unpasteurized milk.
can also be transmitted to people when they come into contact
with an animal's feces (poop) or water that has been
contaminated with the bacteria.
infections are contagious, which means they can be passed from
person to person, especially among members of the same household.
Doctors usually treat people who have a
infection with antibiotics.
- Bartonella henselae
is the bacteria that causes what is known as
cat scratch disease
. A person who is bitten or scratched by a cat (or more commonly
a kitten) that has been infected with the bacteria may develop
swollen and tender lymph nodes, fever, headache, and fatigue.
Usually, the cat doesn't show any symptoms at all, so you
won't know if it is infected. The symptoms of cat scratch
disease usually disappear without treatment, but sometimes a
doctor may prescribe antibiotics to clear up the infection. Cat
scratch disease is not contagious from person to person.
- Dogs and cats with fleas may have
, also known as
which they get from swallowing fleas when they groom themselves.
Fleas can carry tapeworm eggs that grow into an adult tapeworm
once they're in an animal or person's system. Little kids
are especially at risk of getting tapeworm if they swallow an
infected flea. People who have tapeworms may notice tapeworm
pieces in their poop. (Pieces of tapeworm can look like grains of
rice.) Doctors can give people medications to get rid of a
-uh-sis) is an illness that is caused by worms that live in the
intestines of dogs and cats. The eggs from the worms are passed
to humans through the feces of dogs and cats. People who do not
wash their hands frequently may accidentally eat the tiny eggs of
these worms, which then hatch and develop in the digestive
system. Babies and younger children who often put things in their
mouths are particularly at risk of getting toxocariasis. Although
pets can carry the worm eggs, most people
get toxocariasis through eating contaminated soil. People
with toxocariasis may have symptoms such as fever, cough or
wheezing, abdominal pain, rash, or enlarged lymph nodes. There
are pills that can treat most forms of toxocariasis.
- A person gets
-sus) by having contact with a parasite found in cat feces or
undercooked meat. Signs and symptoms of this infection include
swollen glands, fatigue, muscle pain, fever, headache, cough,
sore throat, and rash. Toxoplasmosis is especially dangerous in
because it can cause severe problems for the fetus, including
vision problems and mental retardation. Pregnant women should
avoid all contact with litter boxes, especially those used by
cats that go outdoors.
, also called tinea (pronounced:
-ee-uh), is a fungal infection that can appear anywhere on a
person's body. People can get ringworm from touching infected
animals such as dogs, cats, and rodents - as well as from
touching the infected skin of other people with the condition.
Ringworm causes itchy circular rings anywhere on the skin (even
the scalp) that continue to grow if not treated. Doctors use an
antifungal cream or oral medicine to treat ringworm.
Even if pet birds are kept in cages, they can sometimes pass
certain infections to people. Fortunately, getting infections from
birds is rare, especially if you are young and healthy.
-sis) is one infection that people may get from birds. People who
inhale organisms found in bird droppings, especially from
pigeons, may get this disease. Symptoms include fever, fatigue,
cough, and chest pain. Cryptococcosis can cause serious illness
(inflammation of the brain) and
. People with weakened immune systems from illnesses such as AIDS
or cancer are at particular risk of getting cryptococcosis.
Cryptococcosis is a type of fungal infection, so doctors treat it
with antifungal medications.
-sis), also known as
, is passed to people when they have contact with infected bird
feces or with infected dust in birdcages. The birds that
typically carry the organisms that cause the disease are parrots,
parakeets, and macaws, especially birds that have been smuggled
into the country, but other birds like pigeons and turkeys can
transmit the disease. A person who has developed psittacosis may
cough, fever, and chills. Doctors treat psittocosis infections
Reptiles and Amphibians
Most reptiles and amphibians carry the bacteria
-uh) in their digestive tract and can be found on their skin.
People who pick up
bacteria after touching reptiles (like lizards, snakes, crocodiles,
and turtles) or amphibians (like frogs, toads, and salamanders) can
become seriously ill.
Reptiles also can shed
in their feces, so people can become infected by touching a
reptile's cage or other contaminated surfaces.
causes symptoms such as severe diarrhea, stomach cramps, fever. It
can also infect the blood and spread to other parts of the body.
Antibiotics can be used; however, they're not always
Even tiny creatures such as hamsters, gerbils, and other rodents
can carry diseases that may be harmful to your health.
- A very rare - but potentially serious - condition is
-tis), or LCM. This infectious condition is caused by a virus
that commonly infects mice, hamsters, and other rodents. People
become sick with LCM from inhaling or ingesting the virus which
is found in urine, feces, or saliva of infected rodents. A person
who has LCM may have fever, fatigue, headache, muscle aches,
nausea, and vomiting. About half of infected people will develop
nervous system complications, such as meningitis or encephalitis.
There is no specific treatment for this virus, but people with
LCM may have to be watched in the hospital until they recover.
is a severe illness caused by a virus that's carried in
saliva. Rabies is passed to humans through the bite of an
infected animal. Animals that may carry the rabies virus include
raccoons, bats, skunks, coyotes, foxes, and groundhogs.
Unvaccinated pets like dogs and cats can get rabies if an
infected wild animal bites them. Although rabies is a serious
illness that can cause brain damage and death if not treated soon
after exposure, cases of rabies in humans are extremely rare in
the United States, thanks to pet immunization requirements.
Domesticated pets, like dogs, should always be immunized
(vaccinated) against rabies to decrease the possibility of
-mee-uh), also known as
, is caused by the bacterium
, which is carried by animals like rabbits, squirrels, and other
rodents. Humans can get tularemia by handling infected animals,
inhaling the bacteria in animal urine or feces, or through tick
or fly bites. Within a few days after exposure, a person may
develop symptoms such as skin or mouth ulcers, swollen lymph
glands, headache, sore throat, and muscle pain. Tularemia is
treated with antibiotics. It is extremely rare in the United
States and is almost never caused by pets that have always lived
Keeping Yourself and Your Pet Healthy
Pets are popular. As many as 6 in 10 families in the United
States have some type of pet, and numerous studies prove the health
benefits of having pets, such as reduced stress and lower blood
pressure. For some people, pets can be real lifesavers: companion
animals help the blind and people with certain health conditions to
live fulfilling lives.
But it is important to keep in mind that pets can carry diseases
that can make you sick. Washing your hands often - especially after
you touch, feed, or clean up after a pet - is the best way to keep
yourself healthy and prevent the spread of infection. Use warm,
soapy water and be sure to scrub under your fingernails every time
You also can protect your health even further by wearing gloves
while cleaning animal cages or cat litter boxes. Avoid washing your
pet in the kitchen sink or bathtub; but if you do, always disinfect
it with bleach immediately afterward (the sink or tub, that is, not
You can do a few other things to keep yourself and your pet
healthy. Only give your pet food that has been formulated for them.
It's not a good idea to share your food with your pet. Human
food (like chocolate) can make animals sick. Never feed your pet
raw meat because it can carry germs that cause serious illness -
both for you and your pet.
And as funny as it can be to see your dog or cat drinking from
the toilet, don't let pets do this. It's bad for your
pet's health - not to mention your own if your pet comes up and
gives you a big lick on the face afterward! Have clean, fresh water
available at all times.
Be sure to bring your pet to the veterinarian for regular visits
and whenever your pet is sick or injured.
Finally, some animals aren't pets. As tempting as it can be,
don't take in a wild animal as a pet because it may be infected
with diseases that could make you or your family sick. Instead,
call an animal rescue group that is trained in helping sick or
abandoned animals. And for your own protection, avoid touching
strange animals or animals that appear sick.
Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: November 2008
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice,
diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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