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Zoonotic Diseases in Dogs & Cats

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We love everything about our pets – well almost. It’s often difficult to think about all the germs our pets may be carrying. While it’s a topic most pet owners just want to sweep under the rug, it’s important to understand our dogs and cats can carry harmful germs that could spread diseases to humans. Full disclosure, you might cringe a little or perhaps feel a bit of the heebie-jeebies – but remember, we love our pets! So, let’s arm ourselves with the knowledge to keep them healthy and our families safe. Alright, here we go!

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What exactly is a zoonotic disease?

Zoonotic diseases are caused by germs such as bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi that can be spread from animals to people. It is estimated that more than 60% of known infectious diseases in people can be spread from animals! 

How does a person acquire a zoonotic disease? 

There are a variety of ways that people can acquire these infections, including:

  • direct contact with body fluids of an infected animal or via bites/scratches 
  • indirect contact with contaminated surfaces such as soil, bedding, or food and water dishes
  • being bitten by a vector such as a tick, mosquito, or flea
  • exposure to food or water that is contaminated with feces from an infected animal 

Who is most at risk of contracting a zoonotic disease? 

Although anyone can get sick from a zoonotic disease, the following are at higher risk of developing severe infections:   

  • children under 5 years old 
  • adults over 65 years old 
  • people with compromised immune systems 
  • pregnant woman 

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What are some of the more common zoonotic diseases that may be carried by dogs and cats? 

There are a number of zoonotic diseases that can be carried by dogs and cats, including rabies, ringworm, and tickborne diseases. Since those ones are more well-known, we’re going to instead briefly cover three zoonotic diseases that are common, but less familiar to pet owners 

1. Intestinal Parasites (Roundworms, Hookworms, & Whipworms) 
  • These intestinal parasites can be passed from pets to people through the accidental ingestion of fecal material from infected animals – this is why it’s important to wash your hands after cleaning up after your pet!  
  • They can also be passed through ingestion of water or soil that has been contaminated with infected feces.  
  • Gastrointestinal distress is the most common side effect of intestinal parasitism and may range from mild to severe.  
2. Protozoal Diseases 
  • Protozoans are a group of single-celled organisms that often live in water or moist areas such as soil or moss.
  • Two common types of protozoan parasites that dogs and cats may carry are Giardia and Toxoplasma. 
    • Giardia 
      • spreads by ingestion of the protozoa via contact with infected surfaces or food, soil, or water that has been contaminated by feces from an infected animal or person. 
      • most commonly infects people via drinking of contaminated water from lakes, rivers, or pools. 
      • can cause a range of gastrointestinal symptoms.  
    • Toxoplasma 
      • is commonly carried by cats (especially cats who hunt prey or consume raw meat). Cats rarely develop clinical disease from the infection but can readily transmit the organism via their feces for a short time.
      • can be spread to humans via contact with infected cat feces, drinking infected water, or via ingestion of undercooked, contaminated meat or shellfish.
      • does not cause symptoms of infection in healthy people, because their immune systems prevent the parasite from causing illness. However, Toxoplasma can remain in the body in an inactive state and become reactivated if the person’s immune system becomes compromised.
      • can cause a variety of developmental issues if a developing fetus is exposed to the organism via its mother. Toxoplasmosis is the reason why pregnant womeare strongly discouraged from cleaning cat litter boxes.  
      • can cause severe symptoms such as fever, headaches, nausea, and seizures in people with compromised immune systems. 
3. Leptospirosis  
  • is a bacterial disease spread through the urine of infected animals (commonly rodents) and can survive for months in soil and water. 
  • infection can occur via contact with contaminated food, water, or soil, or through direct contact with urine and other bodily fluids (except saliva) from infected animals. 
  • symptoms can be variable and may include general discomfort or unease, gastrointestinal upset, kidney or liver damage, or neurologic signs.
  • Dogs can be vaccinated against leptospirosis, although due to the number of different strains, the vaccine is not 100% effective against all of them 

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So, how can I decrease my family’s risk of contracting a zoonotic disease?  

Despite the possibility of zoonotic disease transmission from our beloved companions, there are many things you can do to protect yourself and your family: 

  • Appropriate handwashing is one of the best steps you can take to stay safe. Develop the habit of always washing hands after handling pets or their waste.  
  • Discourage your pet from drinking from stagnant water sources to prevent illness from bacterial contaminantsInstead, always provide fresh water.  
  • As mentioned earlier, pregnant women should not clean cat litter boxes due to the risk of Toxoplasma infection.  
  • Families should consult with a primary care veterinarian to ensure pets are routinely and appropriately treated for intestinal parasites to decrease the risk to your family. 
  • Discuss vaccinating your dog against leptospirosis with your primary care veterinarian.  

 By taking these proper precautions, we can continue to enjoy our furry friends safely! 

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If you have a concern about the possibility of a zoonotic disease in your pet, work with your family veterinarian to manage their care. Your veterinarian may also advise you to seek counsel from your physician to discuss any potential risk to you or your family’s health. 

Kayla Hanson, DVM, DACVECC, cHPV, cVMA, Animal Emergency & Referral Center of Minnesota

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