Whether they’re furry, feathered or scaled, many people consider their pets to be a part of the family. After all, they are great companions and good for our health.
But pets can sometimes carry harmful germs or parasites that can make you sick. These are known as zoonotic illnesses or diseases people can get from animals, including infected pets.
“Most illnesses related to pets are from infectious saliva that contaminates bite wounds or skin abrasions, or hand-to-mouth transfer of microorganisms from the feces of an infected animals,” says Christen Benke, DO, a family medicine physician at Scripps Clinic Del Mar.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintains a list of diseases that can spread between animals and humans. Currently there is no evidence that animals play a significant role in spreading the virus that causes COVID-19, according to the CDC.
While the chances of getting sick from a pet are small, it is still wise to know the most common infectious diseases that you can get from pets. By taking the right precautions, you can minimize the risks to your family’s health and still be able to give plenty of love to your cats and dogs and other pets.
A common myth about dogs is that they have cleaner mouths than people. However, dogs explore much of their world with their mouth. They can’t brush or floss, which means germs can linger.
A dog infected with a disease, such as rabies, Pasteurella and brucella, could spread the bacterial infection through a bite that punctures the skin. So, any bites from unknown dogs or wild animals should prompt a visit to a doctor.
“If you have a healthy dog, they have a healthier mouth that is less likely to spread disease,” notes Dr. Benke. “Our skin also provides an excellent barrier against all kinds of bacteria and other infections, so a simple lick from a dog is perfectly safe. Just be sure not to let your dog lick an open cut or scrape on your skin.”
For cats, many infections, such as salmonella, campylobacter, cryptosporidium and giardia, are spread through feces, which then can transfer to a human when the litter box is cleaned. Cats — especially those with stomach issues such as diarrhea — should have their stool examined by a vet and be treated immediately for any problems.
One of the most concerning parasitic diseases that can be transmitted from cats to humans through feces is toxoplasmosis, which can cause flu like symptoms in some people. It can also be dangerous to a developing fetus.
Dogs, cats, horses and other animals can also pass ringworm, which is a fungal infection, to humans. Ringworm can cause a ring-shaped, reddish rash.
People with weak immune systems may be more vulnerable to diseases you can get from pets. Pregnant women should not clean or change a litter box, and anyone who handles the litter should carefully wash their hands after they’re done.
Salmonella infection is the most common illness related to pet reptiles. Most reptiles, such as snakes, turtles and lizards, are harboring the bacteria, which are shed in their feces. Salmonella symptoms may include stomach pain, diarrhea and fever 12 to 72 hours after infection.
To protect yourself, thoroughly wash your hands after handling a reptile. Small children often touch their mouth or put things into their mouths, which can put them at a higher risk of infection. Make sure to closely monitor children when they are around reptiles.
“With large reptiles, hand washing may not be enough,” notes Dr. Benke. “There have been cases where salmonella has transferred onto clothing by a large reptile where it later infected small children. If children are involved, it’s better to thoroughly wash your hands and change your clothes after handling a reptile.”
Dogs, cats, birds and horses may also carry salmonella.
With any pet, playtime can sometimes lead to bites or scratches. In most cases with a healthy pet, a simple cleansing with soap and water, a dab of antibiotic ointment and a bandage are all you need to prevent an infection.
Cat scratch disease, for example, is a bacterial infection that can be prevented by avoiding play that may lead to bites and scratches.
If you are bitten or scratched by an unknown animal, or if the area around the wound turns red or swollen, this could mean an infection and it’s important to call your doctor.
Pets can also bring disease-carrying insects, ticks and fleas into the home. So, keep them clean and regularly check your pet for these external parasites.
While dogs and cats can‘t give you Lyme disease directly, they can bring infected ticks into your home or yard. Consider using tick control products for animals to protect your pet as well as yourself.
“Pets are fun and good for your health,” says Dr. Benke. “They may lower blood pressure, reduce cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and improve feelings of loneliness, while increasing opportunities for exercise, outdoor activities and socialization. The key is to keep your pet healthy, make sure they get regular checkups and to remember to regularly wash your hands.”