Having a pet can be wonderful, providing a range of physical and mental benefits. Animal companions can soothe you in times of stress, encourage exercise, and even reduce blood pressure. However, they can also transmit certain diseases to humans—some of them serious. Here’s what you need to know about avoiding nine of the most common health problems that can be passed on from your pet, along with the key symptoms that you may have already contracted one of these illnesses.
Hookworms cause diarrhea and weight loss in dogs, as they feed on the intestinal lining and cause blood loss. As well as being potentially fatal to your pet, hookworms can pass onto humans through contact between skin and dog feces—a particular concern for parents whose children are running barefoot through the grass. Many people infected with hookworms don’t develop any obvious symptoms, though they may notice abdominal pain, a rash, or signs of anemia (such as pallor and lethargy). Avoid catching these parasites by sticking to impeccable hygiene habits around your dog’s feces.
Primarily caught from younger dogs and cats, ringworm is not a worm but rather a fungal infection that leads to a scaly, red rash. Easily transmitted to humans through contact with anything that touches an infected animal, ringworm doesn’t always cause symptoms in pets. This fungal infection can be easily treated with antifungal creams or drugs, but you can dramatically reduce your chances of catching it by always making sure that you wash your hands after touching your pet or its bedding.
3. Cat scratch disease (CSD)
Approximately 2 in 5 cats carry B. hanselae at some stage of their lives. This is the bacterium that causes CSD in bitten or scratched humans, leading to swollen lymph nodes around the head and neck, lethargy and a mild to moderate fever. Children under 5 and people with weakened immune systems may also suffer a more serious form of CSD that reaches internal organs like the heart and brain. To avoid getting CSD, don’t encourage your cat to use its teeth and claws as part of rough play, and always disinfect any wound you receive from the pet. In addition, note that you’re less likely to get CSD from indoor cats, as the bacteria transmit through contact with fleas or during fights with other, infected cats.
Spread through urine, leptospirosis is a bacterium that can survive in water and soil for weeks or months. Pets who contract leptospirosis typically show no signs of ill health, but can then pass the infection onto humans through their urine. If left untreated, leptospirosis can damage the kidneys, liver and lungs, and sometimes even causes meningitis. The best way to stay safe is to ensure you and your pets only drink from clean water sources, and avoid contact with your pet’s bodily fluids (though saliva does not carry this type of bacteria).
If you have a pet reptile or turtle, salmonella is the main bacterial infection you need to worry about. While it generally leaves pets untroubled, it can cause vomiting, a high fever and severe diarrhea in humans. You can reduce your chances of catching salmonella by asking your vet to give your reptile or turtle a yearly test for the bacterium, and by always washing your hands after touching the pet.
Especially common in dogs (but also affecting some cats), giardia is a parasite that lives in water and can easily be caught by pets that drink from lakes, streams or rivers. Humans can then end up with the parasite through handling fecal matter. As well as wearing gloves when handling pet waste, always carry fresh, clean drinking water for your dog instead of letting it drink from outside sources. If you experience a sudden bout of severe diarrhea in the wake of your pet displaying the same symptoms, you may need antiparasitic drugs.
Roundworm is the most common internal parasite present in cats, with some of these worms growing up to four inches long. An estimated 10,000 children develop roundworms every year, and the key symptoms include coughing, shortness of breath and digestive disturbances. You can protect yourself and your children by keeping your cat indoors and enforcing a strict rule about washing hands after handling the pet. If diagnosed, roundworm can be treated with antiparasitic drugs in both pets and humans.
8. Parrot fever
Your pet bird could be carrying a bacterium called Chlamydophila psittaci. When transmitted to humans, the main symptoms are achy muscles, an unproductive cough and a fever. Parrot fever is treatable with a course of antibiotics, but you can avoid catching it in the first place by wearing a mask and gloves when you clean your bird’s cage or handle droppings. It’s also smart to clean the cage in a well-ventilated area.
9. Lymphocytic choriomeningitis (LCM)
A viral infection that can be transmitted from pet rodents, LCM causes flu-like symptoms like headaches, body aches and chills. Brain inflammation may develop in rare cases, and pregnant women can unknowingly infect their unborn children (increasing the risk of congenital defects). Always wash your hands after handling a pet rodent, and allocate primary care duties to another member of the household if you’re pregnant.