Most people consider their pet a family member, whom they allow to curl up in their lap, sleep in their bed, and lick their face, but this close contact can facilitate disease transmission. While owning a pet offers many more benefits than risks, you should be aware that your pet can transmit diseases to you. Our team at Billings Animal Family Hospital wants to help by providing information about what diseases you can acquire from your pet, and how you can protect yourself and your four-legged friend.

Parasitic diseases transmitted by pets

Parasites frequently target pets, and parasitic diseases are the most common infections transmitted to humans from pets. These parasitic diseases include:

  • Roundworms — Roundworms are the most common parasitic worm in dogs and cats, and are transmitted to pets in multiple ways. Pets can be infected by their mother before they are born, drinking their infected mother’s milk, ingesting roundworm larvae in their environment, and eating an infected small animal. Your pet can then transmit roundworms to you if you contact their infected feces or contaminated soil. Roundworms can cause eye, lung, heart, and neurological signs in people, and children and pregnant women are at higher risk. Prevention includes fecal checks on your pet once a year and year-round parasite prevention medications. In addition, you should wash your hands thoroughly after handling your dog’s waste material.
  • Toxoplasmosis — Toxoplasmosis is caused by the Toxoplasma gondii parasite. Cats are the definitive host, and they are infected when they eat infected birds or small animals. Your cat can transmit toxoplasmosis to you when you clean their litter box. Most healthy people have no infection symptoms, but if they do, they suffer mild symptoms, including body aches, headache, fever, fatigue, and swollen lymph nodes. Immunocompromised people can develop more serious issues, including ocular inflammation, lung infections, and neurological signs. Pregnant women are also at high risk, because toxoplasmosis can cause miscarriages, and the woman can pass the infection to her unborn baby, causing birth defects and severe infection. To prevent toxoplasmosis, don’t allow your cat to eat birds or small animals, wash your hands thoroughly after cleaning your cat’s litter box, and don’t allow immunocompromised people or pregnant women to clean the litter box.

Bacterial diseases transmitted by pets

Several bacteria can infect pets, who can transmit the bacterial diseases to you. The diseases include:

  • Salmonellosis — Most people get salmonellosis by ingesting contaminated food, but pets can also spread the bacteria in their feces. Lizards, snakes, and turtles are common infection sources, but dogs, cats, and birds can also carry the bacteria. Salmonellosis causes intense abdominal pain and cramping, diarrhea, and fever. To prevent salmonellosis, always wash your hands thoroughly after contacting pet feces and after handling reptiles or surfaces they have contacted.
  • Leptospirosis — Leptospirosis is caused by several Leptospira species that usually infect pets who contact urine-contaminated water. Dogs who swim in or drink from natural water sources are at highest risk. Your pet can transmit leptospirosis to you when you handle their urine. In humans, leptospirosis can cause symptoms that include fever, headache, sore muscles, chills, vomiting, and red eyes, and liver or kidney damage in severe cases. Prevention involves not allowing your pet to swim in or drink from natural water sources, and washing your hands thoroughly after handling your pet’s waste material. A leptospirosis vaccine is available for dogs, and our veterinary professionals will help you determine if the vaccine would be beneficial for your dog.
  • Cat scratch disease — Cat scratch disease is caused by Bartonella henselae bacteria. Flea-infected cats can transmit the disease to you through a bite or scratch, or by licking an open wound. Cat scratch disease in humans can cause symptoms that include redness and swelling at the wound site, swollen lymph nodes, headache, fatigue, joint pain, fever, and body rash. Prevention involves providing your cat with year-round flea prevention medication, and washing all bite and scratch wounds thoroughly.

Viral diseases transmitted by pets

Many viruses are species-specific, but you can acquire certain viruses from your pet.

  • Rabies — Rabies is the most concerning virus transmitted from pets to humans. Transmission occurs through an infected animal’s bite, and wild animals, such as raccoons, skunks, bats, and foxes, can be affected. Your pet can transmit rabies to you by biting or licking an open wound. Once infection occurs, signs can take two to three months to manifest, depending on the bite wound location and how much virus was delivered. Initial symptoms in humans include lethargy, fever, and headache, followed by confusion, hallucinations, delirium, and paralysis as the disease progresses. Once signs manifest, the disease is almost always fatal. Humans can receive post-exposure prophylaxis, which involves a dose of human rabies immune globulin and a rabies vaccine on the day of exposure and on days 3, 7, and 14. The best rabies prevention is keeping your pet’s rabies vaccination up to date, and not allowing your pet to contact wild animals.
  • Norovirus — Dogs can carry human strains of norovirus in their feces. Studies have not proven that humans can be infected by this route, but you should always practice good hygiene after handling your dog’s feces to prevent infection.

Pet ownership provides many more benefits than risks, but you should still take precautions to ensure your pet doesn’t transmit a disease to you. If you would like to discuss vaccinating your dog for leptospirosis, or your pet is due for their rabies vaccination, contact our Billings Animal Family Hospital team, so we can ensure you and your pet are protected.