While dogs and cats are the most common pets, there is increasing interest in rodents, reptiles and wild carnivores as household pets. This has caused a great increase in the number of diseases being passed from pets to humans. Some zoonotic diseases, such as salmonellosis, are quite common, and are usually not life threatening.
Other diseases, however, can be very serious. It is more common for children to get sick because they are in close contact with each other and with their pets, and may have poor hand washing habits.
Before getting a pet, one should be familiar with the habits and proper care of the animal, as well as its potential to carry diseases. A brief description of the common diseases pets can give to humans is outlined here.
Dogs and cats are the most common household pets, but people can catch more than just fleas from them. Cat scratch fever, from bites and scratches of cats, can cause red bubble-like sores, and can lead to serious infection and illness. Puppies and kittens may carry a roundworm (Toxocara canis), which can be passed to children through close contact.
Another common parasite is Toxoplasma. This illness comes from contact with cat droppings, and has been nicknamed ‘litter box disease.’ It can be passed to people while cleaning a litter box, or playing in a sandbox after it has been used by a cat. This is a very serious illness for a pregnant woman, as the infection can affect her unborn child. The result can be miscarriage, premature birth, or blindness in a newborn.
Children can also pick up diseases such as salmonellosis and giardiasis (beaver fever) from puppies or kittens with diarrhea.
Rabies is another concern. It is caused by a virus that enters the body through wounds, particularly bites. Dogs and cats can be infected with the virus, but it is more commonly found in raccoons, bats, skunks, coyotes, ferrets and foxes. In some areas, especially northern communities, rabies in dogs is still a major problem. Anyone bitten by an animal that appears confused, passive, uncoordinated, ill or is foaming at the mouth should see a doctor immediately. It is a good idea for all bite injuries to be checked by a doctor.
Diseases passed to humans by pet rabbits and rodents such as Guinea pigs, hamsters and mice are rare, but there have been disease outbreaks. Guinea pigs catch Salmonella infection easily, and often die of this. Mice and rats are also common carriers of this bacteria. However, most of the human health problems encountered with these animals are related to allergies or bites.
Keeping wild rodents as pets, such as squirrels and woodchucks, can be very dangerous. Woodchucks can transmit rabies and squirrels can transmit several diseases, including the plague. As a general rule, wildlife should not be kept as pets because of the health risks.
Exotic animals, such as hedgehogs, sugar gliders and reptiles, are becoming more popular pets. As humans have more contact with these animals, there is also an increase in salmonellosis cases related to the exposure. Most reptiles, including turtles and iguanas, carry Salmonella. There have been many cases of children becoming infected by touching or playing with these animals. Since they tend to carry Salmonella, some types of turtles have been banned in parts of Canada and the U.S. One should check with the local health department before getting a turtle. Reptiles such as iguanas are not recommended if there are small children in the home. Hedgehogs have also been known to bring Salmonella infection to humans in Canada.
Ferrets are becoming more common as pets. Ferrets, however, were bred to hunt, and may attack other small unattended animals. There have been cases of ferrets attacking human babies, and therefore they are not recommended for people with children under the ages of six or seven. Pet ferrets can carry the rabies virus, and should be vaccinated against rabies. Ferrets are also easily affected by flu, and can pass the infection to humans.
Parrot disease or parrot fever (psittacosis) is usually a disease of birds, but can cause illness in humans. The disease can range from mild flu-like to a very serious illness that can affect the lungs, heart or brain.
Allergic reactions to pets can also be a concern. The pets that most commonly cause reactions are cats and rodents. Animals produce different substances to which humans may be allergic. These are usually proteins, and may be in the urine, saliva or dander (dead skin flakes) of animals. The protein can be found in the house in many ways. For example, proteins in cat saliva can be mixed up in house dust and spread this way. In rodents such as mice or guinea pigs, the protein is usually found in the urine.
Although there are many types of zoonotic diseases, getting sick from a pet does not happen very often. Close contact with sick animals or reptiles can increase the risk of getting diseases from them. Owners should be aware that animal diseases can be passed to humans, especially children, and take the proper precautions.
At right are some general guidelines for reducing disease spread from your pet.