More than 85 million families in the U.S. own a pet. Interacting with animals has been shown to help reduce people’s stress and even support healing. Having a pet can teach children responsibility and social skills, and can help increase fitness for pet owners of all ages.
But like the people they live with, pets can also carry harmful germs and spread diseases. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), zoonotic diseases caused by viruses, bacteria, parasites and fungi can cause flu-like symptoms, gastrointestinal distress and more, especially babies and those with compromised immune systems.
The most common diseases to watch for depend on the type of pet. Dog owners watch for worms and ringworm (which is actually a fungus), while toxoplasmosis is more common in cats and salmonella is common in reptiles and chicks. Other less common infections include cat scratch disease and—very rarely and more likely from a wild animal than a pet—rabies.
The good news is that transmission from pets to people is uncommon, and prevention is easy. The two most effective prevention measures you can take against pet-borne diseases are:
- Take your pets to the veterinarian regularly so they remain healthy and receive vaccinations against certain diseases
- Wash your hands after interacting with your pets or any raw foods you feed to them
Carilion Clinic Infectious Diseases specialist Jim Wong, M.D., also recommends that pet owners wash their hands before preparing foods and eating.
“You may have touched contaminated surfaces after already washing your hands after interacting with pets,” he said.
Dr. Wong also offers tips to prevent secondary infections. Pets should not be allowed to lick their wounds, as it can cause secondary infections. And bites should be treated properly.
“Cat and dog bites should not be ignored,” he said. “People should seek medical attention due to risk for infection, especially for cat bites as wounds are deeper.”
Carried by cats, toxoplasmosis is a potentially devastating disease that is preventable. If a pregnant woman becomes infected, she can pass the infection to her unborn fetus, potentially resulting in vision and hearing problems, developmental delays, seizures, meningitis, organ failure and even death. The adult toxoplasmosis parasite lives in cats’ bowels and passes its eggs through feces. The CDC recommends additional prevention measures to protect against toxoplasmosis:
- Have someone who is healthy and not pregnant change your cat’s litter box each day
- If a pregnant woman must change it, she should wear gloves and wash her hands well with soap and water afterward
- Wash your hands with soap and water after any exposure to soil, sand or unwashed vegetables, and wash and peel fruits and vegetables before eating them
- Do not handle raw or uncooked meat
And finally, one more piece of advice that many pet owners will find most difficult to follow: To prevent direct contact with your mucous membranes, do not kiss your pet on the mouth.
Still have questions about your pet and your health? Reach out to your primary care physician for answers.
Pet Allergies: Many pet owners also have allergic responses to their pets’ fur, dander or saliva. For pet allergy concerns, see “Allergy Relief is Possible” for recommendations, and consult your provider.