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Zoonotic Diseases: Health Concerns for You and Your Pet

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Zoonotic Diseases _ Health Concerns for You Dogs and Cats

Zoonotic (pronounced "zoe-oh-NOT-ick") diseases are ailments you can get from your pet or other animals. They often involve parasites, fungal infections, or bacteria that certainly aren't pleasant to think about. However, it's good to be aware of them so you can take steps to protect you and your four-legged friend.

Risk Factors

Anyone can contract a zoonotic disease, but there are groups of people that are more susceptible. They include:

  • Very young children
  • Elderly people
  • Individuals with health conditions that impact the immune system, like HIV/AIDS
  • People undergoing treatments that can suppress immunity, such as chemotherapy or steroid medication

Certain zoonotic diseases such as toxoplasmosis can be passed from mother to baby during pregnancy. These diseases can have dire consequences, such as miscarriage or birth defects, so pregnant women should take extra precautions to avoid them.

cat resting on a window sill


Toxoplasmosis is a parasitic disease often associated with cats. Cats become infected after eating infected prey or raw meat. Infected cats excrete the parasites in their feces for a short period of time of usually no more than two weeks. During this time, the parasite can be transmitted to other cats or humans.

You can contract toxoplasmosis while cleaning the litter box or unknowingly handling infected cat feces in your garden or yard. You can also get toxoplasmosis by eating contaminated meat that is raw or undercooked.

Most cats won't show any signs of toxoplasmosis unless they're very young or have an illness like feline leukemia (FeLV) or feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). If you're in good health, you probably won't experience any symptoms either although it can cause mild flu-like symptoms in some cases.

If there are no symptoms, treatment isn't usually required. Individuals with compromised immune systems can have headaches, blurred vision, respiratory issues, and seizures. They will likely need medications and other treatments to help in their recovery.

Toxoplasmosis and Pregnancy

Toxoplasmosis is a serious concern for pregnant women. In the early months of pregnancy, it can cause miscarriage or stillbirth. Babies exposed to toxoplasmosis who survive can have health issues including seizures, enlargement of the liver or spleen, and eye infections. They can also have problems that show up later in life, such as hearing loss or mental disabilities.

Because cats are infective for such a short time and the parasites need 24 hours to become infective once passed from the cat’s intestines, the risk of contracting toxoplasmosis from cats is low. Historically, pregnant women were advised to avoid cats. The CDC no longer considers this a necessary precaution. If you're pregnant and have a cat, litter box cleaning duty should be assigned to another family member during your pregnancy. If it is unavoidable, you should wear gloves to scoop out the litter box and scoop twice daily to prevent the parasites from becoming infective.

black and white cat with pink tag

Cat Scratch Fever

Cat scratch fever, also referred to as cat-scratch disease (CSD), is caused by bacteria that cats can pick up through a tick or flea bite. The bacteria can be passed to humans by a bite or scratch from an infected cat. It can also be transmitted through saliva, so a person can get it if an infected cat licks at a scab or open sore, which some cats tend to do.

You probably won't be able to tell if a cat carries the bacteria since they usually don't show any symptoms. Humans will typically break out in small reddish bumps or blisters around the site of the infection. They can also experience fever (hence the name cat scratch fever), swollen lymph nodes, headaches, and fatigue. It will often clear up on its own, but it can require antibiotics.


Hookworms are intestinal parasites that are more prevalent in warm and moist areas with inadequate sanitation. Hookworm eggs are excreted through the feces of an infected animal. Once the eggs get into the soil, they grow into immature worms or larvae. If someone steps on or handles the contaminated soil, the larvae can penetrate the skin and cause an infection.

The early signs of a hookworm infection include an itchy rash where the larvae entered the skin. As it progresses, symptoms such as stomach pain, diarrhea, appetite loss, fatigue, and anemia (low red blood cell count) can set in. Children who have chronic hookworm infections can have impaired physical and mental development. Hookworms need to be treated with medication to kill off the parasites.

Japanese chin smiling


Like hookworms, roundworms are intestinal parasites that are more common in areas with poor sanitation. They get their name from their tubular shape. An animal with roundworms sheds their eggs when they defecate. These eggs can then be transmitted to humans who inadvertently handles infected feces or contaminated soil.

Roundworms can also be passed from a mother dog or cat to their young during nursing. Your veterinarian can check your pet for worms during a routine visit. They may also recommend heartworm medication, which can help prevent roundworms as well as heartworms.

A roundworm infection may not show symptoms in the early stages. As it progresses, it can lead to fever, stomach pain, difficulty breathing, and eye issues depending on where the parasites migrate. Roundworm can be treated with medications.


Rabies is a frightening disease that you or your pet can contract through the bite of an infected animal. While it's typically associated with dogs, cats can get rabies, too. The initial symptoms of rabies can include:

  • Headaches
  • Fever
  • Agitation
  • Weakness

As it progresses, it can lead to more severe symptoms including:

  • Erratic behavior
  • Aggression
  • Hallucinations
  • Excessive salivation
  • Paralysis of the throat muscles
  • Fear of water

Eventually, it can lead to coma and death. It's fatal once the symptoms become apparent.

The best protection against rabies is to ensure your pet's rabies vaccination is up-to-date. You should also keep your cat indoors and supervise your dog when you're outside together to make sure they don’t come into contact with wild animals. It’s also important to seal up any cracks or openings in your house to prevent rabid animals from getting inside.


Contrary to the name, there are no worms involved in ringworm. Ringworm is a fungal infection caused by mold-like parasites that reside on the skin. The name comes from the red circular rash that appears around the site of the infection. Ringworm is highly contagious. You can contract it by touching the infected area or coming into contact with a recently contaminated surface or object.

Ringworm starts as a scaly, reddish, and itchy patch of skin. Eventually, a raised ring or multiple rings will form around the outside of the patch. The area inside the ring may become scaly or scattered with red bumps. Ringworm can be cleared up with an antifungal medication.

husky swimming in a pool


Leptospirosis is a bacterial disease that can be carried by animals including dogs, wildlife, cattle, horses, pigs, and rodents. Dogs are most often infected when they swim in or drink from water that has been contaminated with the urine of an infected animal. It can also be spread through direct contact with an infected animal, eating meat that contains the bacteria, or coming into contact with contaminated objects.

It can be hard to tell if your dog has leptospirosis since they may not show any signs in the early stages. Later symptoms can include fever, stiffness, vomiting, and diarrhea, which can be mistaken for other illnesses. Humans who contract leptospirosis can have similar symptoms. Those symptoms may go away, but if the leptospirosis is not treated with antibiotics, they can come back again later. Left untreated, leptospirosis can lead to liver disease, kidney failure, and death.

Lyme Disease

Lyme disease is caused by bacteria transmitted through the bite of an infected deer tick. You can't get it directly from your pet, but your pet can bring ticks into your home on their furry coats putting you and your family at risk. The tell-tale sign of Lyme disease is a rash that looks like a bull's eye. It can also cause symptoms including swollen joints, headache, fever, and fatigue. If you or your dog contract Lyme disease, it can be treated with antibiotics.

To protect you and your pet from Lyme disease, it’s important to check them carefully for ticks after they've been outside. If you spot a tick burrowed into their skin, you can remove it with tweezers. Wear gloves and grab the tick as close to the head as possible. Pull it out in a smooth motion to help avoid leaving any part of it behind. If you have concerns about removing a tick or the possibility of Lyme Disease, contact your veterinarian.

Can You Catch the Flu from Your Pet?

You most likely don't have to worry about getting the flu from your pet. The flu virus that infects dogs doesn't affect people and the risk of getting the strain that makes cat’s sick is low according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). However, all flu viruses are highly contagious, and they can spread easily from dog to dog or cat to cat. If your pet has the flu, keep them away from other healthy pets and follow your veterinarian’s care recommendations.

As far as you giving the flu to your pet, it is rare, but there have been a handful of cases where cats have been infected with the H1N1 or swine flu from humans. The first case was reported in Oregon in 2009. If you come down with the flu, it’s probably best to take precautions, such as washing your hands before touching your pet.

woman cuddling black cat

Tips to Prevent Zoonotic Diseases

One of the best things you can do help prevent the spread of any disease is to wash your hands regularly. And don't just hold them quickly under the water. Scrub them thoroughly for at least 20 seconds. It's especially important to wash your hands after petting or handling a sick pet. Other tips for prevention include:

  • Schedule wellness visits. During a check-up, your veterinarian can perform blood and fecal screenings, which can detect bacterial infections, parasites like heartworms, and other health conditions. Check-ups also help ensure vaccines are up-to-date and give you a chance to ask questions about how to take great care of your pet.
  • Clean your pet's poop. Scoop out the litterbox at least once a day and clean up dog poop as soon as possible. Many organisms found in feces don't become infective right away, so this can help reduce the risk of spreading infection.
  • Stay away from wild animals. Wild animals can carry contagious diseases or injure your pet, so it's best to keep a healthy distance from them.
  • Cover the sandbox. Stray cats may think your sandbox is a large and welcoming litterbox. Cover it up when you're not using it to prevent cats from using it as a bathroom.
  • Prevent fleas and ticks. These pesky bugs can carry a number of infectious diseases. Ask your veterinarian about safe flea and tick prevention.
  • Administer monthly deworming. By giving your pet a monthly dose of deworming medication, you'll help eradicate the most common intestinal parasites to which your dog or cat may be exposed. This protects both your pet and your family!
  • Keep dogs away from unfamiliar bodies of water. Don't allow your dog to splash around in or drink water that could be contaminated. Always bring plenty of fresh water for your pup when you're out hiking or on a long walk.

Of course, you can't always prevent your pet from getting a zoonotic disease or other illnesses. However, pet insurance can help you manage the costs of care, including exams, diagnostic tests, and medications. Get a quote for your pet now.

The information presented in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute or substitute for the advice of your veterinarian.

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