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Zoonoses in cats and dogs

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Zoonoses are diseases that can be transmitted from animals to people. Well known zoonoses include rabies, plague, Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and West Nile virus. Most of these diseases are transmitted from wild animals to people, but pets can occasionally transmit zoonotic diseases as well.

Parasites: Some intestinal parasites of pets can occasionally cause illness in people. For example, immature roundworms can travel through human tissues, causing a condition known as visceral larval migrans. These immature worms never grow into adults but can cause serious inflammation in delicate tissues such as the brain or eye. This is especially of concern in pregnant women, because the immature worms may wander into the tissues of the developing fetus. Another condition of particular importance in pregnant women is toxoplasmosis, which is caused by a microscopic intestinal parasite that can also cause serious problems if it infects the developing fetus.

A common misconception is that pinworms are transmitted from pets to children. In fact, dogs and cats do not carry pinworms. Pinworm infections are transmitted from child to child.

Common external parasites of pets, such as fleas and ticks, can also irritate people and potentially spread disease. Fleas do not live on people, but they will bite us if they are present in large numbers within or household or while they are searching for a pet to infest. Fleas can carry diseases such as plague, which is commonly found in wild rodents in the American southwest. Ticks can carry diseases such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever (which is seen primarily in the Southeastern states) and Lyme disease.

Viruses: Most viruses that affect pets cannot be transmitted to people. For example, in cases of canine distemper, parvovirus, and feline leukemia, your pet cannot transmit the illness to you. An exception is rabies, which is a fatal viral disease that can be transmitted to people from infected pets or wildlife.

Bacteria: Certain intestinal bacteria of pets can cause digestive upset in people as well. Bacteria can also be transmitted to people via bite wounds or scratches, as in the case of cat scratch disease. Ringworm is a fungus that can be transmitted through skin contact with infected pets.

Prevention: You can protect yourself from pet-borne diseases by taking several simple measures:

  • Keep your pet up to date on its rabies vaccination!
  • Control fleas and ticks on and around your pets using commercially available pest-control products.
  • Check for ticks daily, and remove them promptly and properly.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly after cleaning up pet feces. As a rule, pregnant women should not clean litter boxes or handle pet feces.
  • Seek advice from your veterinarian.
  • Clean all bites and scratches thoroughly and seek medical attention to control infection.

Q&A

What are some common zoonoses?

Common diseases transmissible from animals to people include rabies, plague, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Lyme disease, West Nile virus, cat scratch disease, and toxoplasmosis.


Can people get parasite infestations from pets?

The internal parasites of pets do not usually infect the human digestive tract, but people can develop problems from wandering parasites such as Toxoplasma or roundworm larvae.  Fleas and ticks can bite people (and spread disease) while searching for an animal host. 


What is the best way to protect myself and my pet from zoonoses?

Preventive measures include keeping rabies vaccination up to date, controlling fleas and ticks on and around your pets, washing hands thoroughly after cleaning up pet feces, and cleaning all bites and scratches thoroughly before seeking medical attention.

Credit: Written and reviewed by John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhDand Susan E. Aiello, DVM, ELS
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