Pet ownership has many wonderful benefits, but your furry friend also  can expose you to certain diseases. Our American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA)-accredited team at Gentle Touch Animal Hospital wants to help by providing information on a few diseases that can be transmitted by pets.

Zoonotic diseases and pets

Zoonotic diseases are illnesses caused by pathogens, such as bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi, that can be spread between people and animals. These diseases can cause varying illnesses in people, ranging from mild symptoms to serious, life-threatening conditions. In addition, pets can appear perfectly healthy and still transmit disease to humans. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), six out of every 10 known infectious diseases in people can be transmitted by animals, and three out of every four emerging infectious diseases in people originate from animals. 

Pets can transmit rabies

One of the most concerning zoonotic diseases is rabies. This viral infection is transmitted through an infected animal’s bite or when their saliva contacts an open wound. Wild animals, such as bats, foxes, skunks, raccoons, and coyotes, carry the disease, and can transmit it to you or your pet. Important information to know about rabies includes:

  • Signs in pets — Affected pets typically exhibit a change in behavior. While aggressive behavior is common, some pets may become uncharacteristically affectionate, or they may be fearful. Other signs include excessive drooling, difficulty swallowing, lack of coordination, paralysis, and seizures.
  • Symptoms in people — Symptoms may takes weeks or months to show up, depending on the bite wound location. The first symptoms typically include fever, headache, and weakness. As the disease progresses, symptoms include confusion, delirium, hallucinations, and a fear of water. Once signs appear, the disease is almost always fatal.
  • Diagnosis — Definitive diagnosis requires microscopic evaluation of brain tissue after death.
  • Treatment for pets — No treatment exists for rabies in pets, but if your pet is current on their rabies vaccination, a rabies booster administered soon after exposure can help prevent the disease. Once signs appear, the disease is almost always fatal.
  • Treatment for people  — After rabies exposure, humans must receive post exposure prophylaxis (PEP), which involves receiving human rabies immune globulin and a rabies vaccine on the day of exposure and then on days 3, 7, and 14. 
  • Rabies prevention — Rabies can easily be prevented by keeping your pets away from wild animals and by keeping their rabies vaccinations up to date.

Pets can transmit leptospirosis

Leptospirosis is a bacterial disease caused by several Leptospira species. Important information about leptospirosis includes:

  • Adventurous pets are at higher risk — Leptospirosis infection occurs when your pet contacts urine-contaminated water or ingests infected animal meat. This means pets who are frequently in rural settings and those who enjoy swimming in natural water sources are at higher risk.
  • Signs in pets — Leptospirosis is rare in cats, and little is known about the disease in this species. Signs in dogs include fever, muscle soreness, lethargy, increased thirst and urination, diarrhea, and jaundice.
  • Symptoms in people — Symptoms in people include fever, headache, muscle soreness, and vomiting. In severe cases, people can develop kidney failure, liver disease, bleeding disorders, or meningitis.
  • Diagnosis — Serological tests are used to diagnose leptospirosis.
  • Treatment — People and pets typically respond to antibiotic treatment, but other supportive treatment may be necessary in advanced cases.
  • Leptospirosis prevention — To prevent leptospirosis, don’t let your dog drink from or swim in natural water sources, and especially avoid stagnant water pools. In addition, don’t let your dog eat meat from carcasses. A leptospirosis vaccine is available for dogs, and you can ask your veterinary professional if your dog is a good candidate.

Pets can transmit toxoplasmosis

Toxoplasmosis is caused by a single-celled parasite called Toxoplasma gondii. Cats are the definitive hosts for these organisms, which means the parasite needs them to complete their life cycle. When a cat ingests an infected bird or small animal, cysts in their digestive tract release the parasite, and oocysts are produced when the parasite reproduces. Important information to know about toxoplasmosis includes:

  • Cats shed numerous oocysts — A single infected cat can shed millions of oocysts in their feces, and other pets and people are infected when they ingest these oocysts.
  • Signs in cats — Most infected cats appear completely healthy. However, kittens or cats who have a suppressed immune system may exhibit signs including fever, decreased appetite, lethargy, difficulty breathing, eye inflammation, and neurologic signs.
  • Symptoms in people — Most healthy people who are infected never develop symptoms, but immunocompromised people can develop signs including body aches, swollen lymph nodes, headache, fever, and fatigue. In addition, toxoplasmosis can cause a pregnant woman to miscarry, and infected women can pass the parasite to their unborn children, resulting in serious infections and birth defects.
  • Diagnosis — Serological tests are used to diagnose toxoplasmosis.
  • Treatment — Treatment for people and pets typically involves antibiotics, and supportive care may be necessary depending on the condition’s severity.
  • Toxoplasmosis prevention — To prevent toxoplasmosis, don’t allow your cat to eat birds or small animals. In addition, practice good hygiene when cleaning your cat’s litter box, and have someone else perform the task if you are pregnant.

While your pet can transmit certain diseases to you, your risk is generally low, and the benefits your furry companions provide far exceed any threat. If you would like to discuss having your dog vaccinated for leptospirosis, contact our Fear Free team at Gentle Touch Animal Hospital so we can determine if they are a good candidate.