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. Here's how you and your pet can stay infection free.
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 cancer or AIDS).
Zoonoses (pronounced: zoo-uh-no-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.
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 to humans.
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.
Most reptiles and amphibians carry the bacteria Salmonella (pronounced: sal-muh-nel-uh) in their digestive tract and can be found on their skin. People who pick up Salmonella 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 Salmonella in their feces, so people can become infected by touching a reptile's cage or other contaminated surfaces. Salmonellosis causes symptoms such as severe diarrhea, stomach cramps, and fever. It also can infect the blood and spread to other parts of the body. Antibiotics can be used to treat these infections, but aren't always necessary.
Even tiny creatures such as hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, and other rodents can carry diseases that may be harmful to your health. Most infections from these animals are passed to people through infected feces or a bite. These animals can also cause salmonellosis and ringworm in people.
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 wash.
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 the pet!).
You can do a few other things to keep yourself and your pet healthy. Only give your pets 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.
Many infections caused by animals can be difficult to diagnose because the symptoms can be similar to other more common illnesses. If you're sick, be sure to let your doctor know if you've been around any sick or wild animals, or had any bites, including tick or mosquito bites.
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.
Reviewed by: Yamini Durani, MD
Date reviewed: March 2012
|Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) HSUS is the world's largest animal protection organization and has been officially recognized by the United Nations to negotiate for animals.|
|Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) The mission of the CDC is to promote health and quality of life by preventing and controlling disease, injury, and disability. Call: (800) CDC-INFO|
|The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) The ASPCA provides education about the humane treatment of animals (including finding and caring for a pet) and pet adoption opportunities nationwide.|
|Cellulitis Cellulitis is a skin infection that involves areas of tissue just below the skin's surface. It can affect any part of the body, but it's most common on exposed areas, such as the face, arms, or lower legs.|
|Osteomyelitis Sometimes a bad cut that gets infected can lead to even worse things, like a bone infection called osteomyelitis. The easiest way to protect yourself is to practice good hygiene.|
|If I Have Asthma, Can I Keep My Pet? If you have asthma, you're more likely to be allergic to a pet than someone who doesn't have asthma. Find out what you can do if you're allergic to your pet.|
|Salmonellosis Salmonellosis is the medical term for any illness caused by a type of bacteria called Salmonella. People often think of salmonellosis as food poisoning, but food is only one way this bacteria can be spread.|
|Gastrointestinal Infections and Diarrhea Nearly everybody gets diarrhea every once in a while, and it's usually caused by gastrointestinal infections. It's nothing to be embarrassed about. Read this article to learn more.|
|Tapeworm A worm that grows in the intestines by eating your food is pretty icky to think about. This article provides the basics on tapeworm and information on preventing them.|
|Ringworm Ringworm isn't a worm at all - it's the name for a type of fungal skin infection. The good news is that ringworm is easy to treat.|
|Lyme Disease Lyme disease can be treated if it's caught early. So read this to find out what causes it, how it's treated, and how to prevent it.|
|Rabies You probably know that you can get rabies from an animal bite. But what is rabies, and what does it do to the body? Find out in this article for teens.|
|Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF) is a disease caused by a bacteria that is carried by certain types of ticks. Learn about the signs and symptoms of RMSF and tips for preventing infection in this article.|
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