Pets and Your Health

Pets and Your Health

Lee este articuloPets 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.

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 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.

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 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.

Reptiles and Amphibians

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.

Other Animals

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.

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 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

Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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Related Resources
OrganizationCenters for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) The CDC (the national public health institute of the United States) promotes health and quality of life by preventing and controlling disease, injury, and disability.
Web SiteThe 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.
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