Our pets are family, and we naturally want to include them in our daily activities—especially at meal times, for couch cuddle sessions, or as warm, cozy sleeping partners. The human-animal bond is special, and a vital part of responsible pet ownership. However, some activities we like to share with our pets may seem harmless, but could result in a zoonotic disease. You may be tempted to share a steak scrap with your pet after a summer grill, or to hike and then cool off with a swim in a contaminated creek. Our Walnut Creek Vet Hospital team wants to ensure you and your four-legged family members are protected. We describe zoonotic disease basics so you know the risks. 

What are zoonotic diseases in pets?

Zoonotic diseases, or zoonoses, are diseases that can be spread between people and animals, and are caused by parasites, viruses, bacteria, or fungi. More than 100 zoonotic diseases exist, and illness severity varies depending on the specific zoonotic agent, and an animal’s or human’s immune system response. Although any pet or person can contract a zoonotic disease, those who are young, older, or have underlying medical problems are at increased risk for severe illness. Common ways zoonotic diseases may spread include:

  • Direct contact — Contact with an infected animal’s feces, saliva, blood, urine, or body fluid, or an infected animal’s touch or bite
  • Indirect contact — Touching an infected object, such as a food or water bowl 
  • Food-borne — Eating or handling undercooked meats or eggs, or raw, unwashed fruits and vegetables
  • Water-borne — Water sources, such as a lake, creek, or spring, that may be contaminated with feces
  • Vector-borne — Infected insects such as ticks, mosquitoes, or fleas when they bite—a single bite can transmit disease

Which zoonotic diseases commonly spread between people and pets?

More than 100 zoonotic diseases, including viruses, and bacterial and fungal infections, exist. In some cases, infected pets may not show disease signs, so yearly, or more frequent, examinations with our Walnut Creek veterinarian are vital, to ensure your pet is disease-free. The following five common zoonotic diseases can infect you and your pet: 

  • Intestinal parasites — Roundworms, tapeworms, giardia, and toxoplasma parasites are spread through contact with an infected pet’s feces. Hookworms are transmitted through direct contact, so use caution when walking barefoot in your pet’s elimination areas, or on contaminated soil. Signs are variable, depending on the infective parasite, but may include diarrhea, vomiting, headaches, localized skin infections, or miscarriages. 
  • External parasites — Mosquitoes, fleas, and ticks may transmit zoonotic diseases, including Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Signs of diseases spread by external parasites include fever or neurologic problems. Check out our previous blog here for more information on diseases spread by external parasites. 
  • Ringworm — This disease is a misnomer, because ringworm is a type of fungal infection, and is not spread or caused by a worm. Ringworm affects the skin of people and animals, and can be spread by direct contact, or contact with infected surfaces, such as a pet’s bedding. Signs may include red, itchy, scaly skin, or hair loss, in an affected pet. 
  • Leptospirosis — This bacterial disease is commonly spread through the urine of infected rodents or other wildlife. Pets and people who have contact with contaminated water, soil, or urine are at risk for leptospirosis, which can lead to organ problems, including the liver and kidneys. Fortunately, a vaccination is available for your pet. 
  • Rabies — A deadly viral disease that can affect any mammal, rabies is primarily spread by contact with an infected animal’s saliva. No effective treatment is available after the development of signs, which may include flu-like symptoms that progress to neurologic dysfunction. A person bitten by a rabid animal must be treated immediately with a post-exposure vaccination series. Regular rabies vaccinations are the best way to ensure your pet is protected. 

How can zoonotic diseases be prevented in pets and people?

Many zoonotic diseases can be prevented with good hygiene practices, such as handwashing after contact with your pet or other animals, and regular veterinary care for your pet. Other zoonotic disease prevention measures include:

  • Ensuring your pet’s vaccinations are current 
  • Monthly parasite prevention medications for your pet
  • Regularly bathing and grooming your pet
  • Wearing gloves when picking up your pet’s feces, or cleaning your cat’s litter box
  • Wearing gloves when working in a garden or yard where an animal has defecated or urinated
  • Frequently washing your pet’s bedding, toys, and food and water bowls
  • Avoiding contact with wildlife, or wildlife feces or urine
  • Preventing your pet from drinking or swimming in water bodies, such as a pond, creek, or lake, that may be contaminated
  • Avoiding feeding your pet any raw meat or eggs, or unwashed vegetables or fruits

Fortunately, zoonotic diseases can be prevented. Call our Walnut Creek Vet Hospital office if you have any questions about these diseases and your pet, or to schedule your pet for an examination and a parasite prevention plan, to ensure they are disease-free, and protected.