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Infections That Pets Can Spread

Caring for pets can be great for kids, teaching them responsibility, gentleness, and respect for other living beings.

Just like people, though, pets can spread infections. Here’s how to protect your family.

How Do Pets Spread Infections?

Also like us, animals carry germs. But illnesses common among house pets — such as distemper, canine parvovirus, and heartworms — can't spread to people.

But some types of bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi that pets can carry can make people sick though a bite or scratch, or if someone has contact with an animal's waste, saliva, or dander. Infants, kids younger than 5 years old, pregnant women, and people with weak immune systems have a greater chance of getting sick from these.

Pet Precautions

Consider the type of pet and the health and age of your kids before you get a pet. For example, children whose immune systems are weak (from HIV, chemotherapy treatment for cancer, or steroid medicines) shouldn’t be around cats and dogs with ringworm infections. Kids with eczema should avoid aquariums. Reptiles and amphibians as pets are not a good idea for families with infants, young children, or an immunocompromised family member.

Dogs and Cats

Dogs and cats can carry infections such as:

  • Campylobacter infection: In people, this bacterial infection causes diarrhea, belly pain, and fever.
  • Cat scratch disease: Signs of this bacterial infection include swollen and tender lymph nodes , fever, headaches, and tiredness.
  • Rabies: This serious illness is rare thanks to widespread immunization of dogs and cats in the United States.
  • Diseases carried by ticks:Tick-borne diseases can happen when ticks attach to pets outdoors. Use tick prevention products on pets and safely remove and dispose of ticks as soon as possible.
  • Ringworm: Kids can get ringworm from touching infected dogs and cats. This can cause a dry, scaly round area with a raised red bumpy border and a clear center. 
  • Toxocariasis: The eggs of a parasitic roundworm in the intestines of dogs and cats can pass from their poop into soil where kids play. An infected child can have a fever, cough or wheezing, enlarged liver, rash, or swollen lymph nodes.
  • Toxoplasmosis: An infection from a parasite found in cat poop usually causes no symptoms in healthy people but can cause serious problems for pregnant women and their unborn babies. So pregnant women and people with weak immune systems should not clean litter boxes.

Birds

Pet birds, even if they are kept in a cage, can spread these diseases:

  • Cryptococcosis: A yeast in bird droppings, especially from pigeons, it can cause pneumonia and meningitis in people with weak immune systems, particularly people with HIV/AIDS.
  • Psittacosis: A type of bacteria can infect pet birds, and someone who has contact with their poop or the dust that builds up in birdcages can develop psittacosis, also called parrot fever. Symptoms include coughing, high fever, and headache.

Backyard poultry, including chickens and ducks, can also carry harmful germs, including Salmonella. Young children and people with weak immune systems should not touch backyard chickens and other live poultry.

Reptiles and Amphibians

Reptiles (including lizards, snakes, and turtles) and amphibians (including frogs, toads, and salamanders) are not recommended as pets for kids younger than 5 because of salmonellosis. This infection causes symptoms such as belly pain, diarrhea, vomiting, and fever. Young children can get very sick with dehydration, meningitis, and sepsis (blood infection).

Other Animals

Infections from handling and caring for rodents and fish include:

  • Lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV): People can get LCMV when exposed to pee, poop, or spit from infected rodents. Pet mice, gerbils, hamsters, and guinea pigs usually don’t carry LCMV but can get infected if around wild mice at the breeder, pet store, or in the home. This infection causes flu-like symptoms — fever, tiredness, headaches, muscle aches, nausea, and vomiting — and may lead to meningitis and encephalitis. It can cause serious problems for infected pregnant woman and their babies.
  • Mycobacterium marinum: This infection happens when people with breaks in their skin are exposed to contaminated water in aquariums or pools. These infections are generally mild and limited to the skin but can be more serious in people with HIV/AIDS or weak immune systems.

How Can We Safely Care for a Pet?

Here are some tips to help your family safely care for pets:

  • After you choose a family pet, take it to a veterinarian for vaccinations and an exam. Schedule regular checkups and routine vaccinations for your pet as recommended. This will keep your pet healthy and lower the chances that it can spread an infection to your family.
  • Teach your children to wash their hands after touching pets, handling your pet's food, or cleaning your pet's cage, tank, or litter box. Wear gloves when cleaning up animal waste. If you have a bird, wear a dust mask over your nose and mouth when cleaning the cage or coop. Don't let kids clean cages or litter boxes until they’re older and know how to do this safely and responsibly. 
  • Have kids wash their hands after visiting petting zoos, farms, or friends’ houses where there are animals.
  • Remind family members to avoid kissing or touching your pet’s mouth because infections can spread through saliva.
  • Keep your pet's living area clean and free of waste. If your pet goes outdoors, pick up waste regularly and don't let kids play in that area.
  • If possible, keep pets out of areas where food is prepared or handled, and don't bathe your pet or clean aquariums in the kitchen sink or bathtub. Wash your pet outdoors or consider professional pet grooming.
  • Avoid strange animals or those that look sick. Never adopt a wild animal as a pet.
  • Watch kids carefully around pets. Young kids are more likely to catch infections from pets because they crawl around on the floor with the animals, kiss them or share food with them, and put their fingers and things in their mouths that may be contaminated.

Talk to your doctor if you have questions about infections from pets. If you have concerns about your pet’s health, talk to your veterinarian.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date Reviewed: 22-02-2022

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