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Could Your Pet Make You Sick?

When a patient presents with an illness, be it conjunctivitis, an upper respiratory infection, or a gastrointestinal virus, we are frequently asked by owners, “Can I catch this from my pet?”

Most of the time, the answer is no.  Most illnesses are species specific.  By following basic hygienic protocols (washing hands thoroughly and frequently, proper disposal of feces), an owner can lower the odds even more.

However, there are a range of pathogens known as zoonoses, or diseases that can be transmitted from animal to person.  They include:

RABIES: The virus that causes rabies is commonly found in bats, monkeys, raccoons, foxes, skunks, wolves and coyotes and can be transmitted to dogs and cats through biting or from scratches from an infected animal.  An animal can also pass the virus to humans.  Rabies is a serious public health threat.  PREVENTION: All dogs and cats should be vaccinated, including strictly indoor animals.  Any person who is bitten by an animal should be seen by a doctor as soon as possible, especially if the bite is from a wild animal.

LEPTOSPIROSIS: Leptospirosis is caused by a bacteria and is spread by rodents.  It causes flu-like symptoms that can worsen and lead to organ failure.  In addition to exposure from rat and mouse droppings, infected dogs can pass the illness to humans.  PREVENTION: If you have a rodent problem, hire an exterminator, properly store trash, etc.  All city dogs should be vaccinated for this disease.

CAT SCRATCH FEVER/BARTONELLA: This condition is caused by a bacteria, Bartonella, that is spread by fleas and ticks.  Cats and kittens are a natural reservoir for the disease, which affects mostly children and immunocompromised individuals.  Fleas transmit the bacteria when they take a blood meal and also excrete it in their feces.  Cats with flea infestations will have “flea dirt,” or flea feces, in their fur.  Transmission to humans happens via saliva (bite) or through exposure to flea feces when scratched.  This condition is self limiting and most patients will clear the infection on their own.  PREVENTION: Use flea and tick prevention on your cats.  Since fleas are the vector in this case, removing them from your pet will significantly decrease your chances of contracting this bacteria.  If your cat does have fleas, see your vet for a treatment protocol to remove them and prevent future infestations.

RINGWORM: This skin infection is caused by a fungus and is not actually a worm.  The spores are hardy and can survive as long as a year clinging to surfaces, and thrive in damp, moist environments.  In veterinary medicine, ringworm is usually seen in very young or immune comprised animals, usually cats.  Bare patches on the face and ears progress into scaly lesions.  In order for a person to develop ringworm, they must have compromised skin (a cut, rash or other irritation) exposed to the spores.  Healthy skin is a formidable barrier.  PREVENTION: If your cat is diagnosed with ringworm, hand washing is a must, as well as laundering any linens or pet beds, vaccuuming loose hair and disinfecting household surfaces.

SARCOPTIC MANGE/SCABIES:  This devastating skin condition is caused by a burrowing mite, which causes intense itching, crusting (which can become infected) and hair loss.  The mite that causes canine scabies is a different species from the mite that causes human scabies, but prolonged exposure to an infected dog can cause transmission of the dog mite to people.  PREVENTION: Wash or replace all pet bedding.  If you have other dogs in the household, all dogs should be treated, considering how contagious this mite is between dogs.  Limit physical contact with your infected dog until his condition has cleared.

TOXOPLASMOSIS: Caused by a protozoan organism, Toxoplasmosis is an infection that can be dangerous to pregnant women.  In addition to transmission through undercooked meat, the oocyst form is shed in cat feces.  Cats that are shedding the oocyst usually have no symptoms.  While the cat has been emphasized as a disease vector, most human infections result from eating undercooked meat infected with tissue stages of the parasite.  PREVENTION: Once shed in cat feces, the oocyst takes 24-48 hours to develop into a form that is dangerous to people.  Cleaning the litterbox at least once daily and changing the litter on a frequent basis will remove this risk.  Gardeners should wear gloves.

INTESTINAL PARASITES: Some species of intestinal parasites, such as roundworms and hookworms, can be transmitted from pet to person.  Most routes of transmission are fecal-oral, but hookworms can enter the human body through the skin.  PREVENTION: Dispose of pet waste properly and immediately.  Wash your hands after handling pet waste and be cautious of hand to mouth contact.  Gardeners should wear gloves and dogs should stay off beaches during peak season.


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