COVID-19 brought awareness to the potential for zoonotic diseases to wreak havoc for humans across the world. Although it does not appear that dogs and cats can transmit COVID-19 to their owners, there are many other diseases that can cause issues for you and your pet. Our American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA)-accredited team at Boca Midtowne Animal Hospital would like to offer information about zoonotic diseases, so you can protect yourself and your pet.

Transmission routes for zoonotic diseases between pets and people

Pathogens can spread from wild animals to pets and people, and between pets and people, in several ways:

  • Direct contact — Transmission occurs when the pathogen directly touches an open wound, abraded skin, or mucous membranes. Bites and scratches can also result in direct contact transmission.
  • Aerosol — Transmission occurs when droplets from an infected cough or sneeze are inhaled. Transmission can also occur when dust or soil that is contaminated by feces, urine, saliva, or bacteria is inhaled.
  • Oral — Transmission occurs when a pathogen in contaminated food or water is ingested. This can occur by ingesting unpasteurized milk, or undercooked food. Eating or drinking after handling animals or feces, without first washing your hands, can also lead to oral transmission.
  • Fomite — Fomites are inanimate objects, such as cages, collars, bowls, clothing, and shoes. Transmission occurs when a fomite is contaminated, and a susceptible person or pet contacts the fomite. 
  • Vector-borne — Mosquitoes, ticks, and fleas are vector examples. These parasites acquire a pathogen from an infected animal or person, and transmit the pathogen to another animal or person through a bite.

Common zoonotic diseases affecting pets and people

More than 200 zoonotic diseases exist worldwide, but those affecting pets and pet owners that are most concerning in the United States include:

  • Rabies — Rabies is a viral disease most commonly found in wild animals, such as bats, raccoons, skunks, and foxes. Transmission occurs when an infected animal bites or scratches, and the virus attacks the nervous system. Signs, which include difficulty swallowing, incoordination, lethargy, fever, decreased appetite, and vomiting, can take 3 to 12 weeks to manifest. Once signs occur, the disease is almost always fatal. Vaccines are available to prevent rabies in pets and pet owners.
  • Lyme disease — Lyme disease is a bacterial infection transmitted by the black-legged tick, and is the most common vector-borne disease in the United States. Signs include lethargy, joint swelling and pain, fever, and swollen lymph nodes. Affected humans may develop a bullseye rash around the tick bite. A vaccine for Lyme disease is available for dogs.
  • Salmonellosis — Salmonellosis is a bacterial infection typically caused when contaminated food is ingested. Signs include fever, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. Affected pets and people may need fluid therapy to replace deficits.
  • Brucellosis — Brucellosis is a bacterial infection that can be transmitted by eating or drinking unpasteurized dairy products. Breeding dogs can also be infected, and transmission can occur when owners or veterinarians contact their reproductive or blood products. Affected female dogs experience infertility and abortions, and affected male dogs have inflammation in their reproductive organs, which can lead to testicular atrophy and infertility. Affected humans experience fever, lethargy, and enlarged lymph nodes.

Preventing zoonotic diseases from spreading between pets and people

People most at risk for contracting a zoonotic disease include children younger than 5 years of age, adults over age 65, pregnant women, and immunocompromised people. Everyone should take certain precautions to prevent disease transmission.

  • Hygiene — Hand washing prevents disease spread most effectively. Warm water and soap should be used for at least 20 seconds, or antimicrobial hand sanitizers can be used when hands are not visibly soiled. Other steps include:
    • Washing your hands before eating or preparing food
    • Washing your hands after using the restroom, blowing your nose, handling pets or other animals, and cleaning up after pets
    • Keeping litter boxes away from eating and food preparation areas
    • Cleaning and disinfecting areas accessed by pets
  • Pet health — Keeping your pet healthy can minimize zoonotic diseases. Steps include:
    • Taking your pet in for regular wellness visits
    • Keeping your pet’s vaccines current
    • Providing year-round flea and tick preventives
    • Ensuring your pet does not contact wildlife, or their feces
    • Checking your pet for ticks after being outdoors, and removing them as soon as possible
  • Personal health — Protect yourself when outdoors to avoid zoonotic diseases by:
    • Avoiding contacting wildlife or their feces
    • Checking yourself for ticks after being outside
    • Using insect repellents when outside
    • Removing stagnant water sources around your home, to prevent mosquito breeding
  • Food safety — Handle and prepare foods safely by:
    • Not eating raw or undercooked meat or eggs
    • Washing raw fruits and vegetables before eating
    • Using separate cutting boards for meat, and fruits and vegetables
    • Storing food promptly, at the proper temperature

If you are concerned that you are affected by a zoonotic disease, contact your primary care physician for advice. If you are concerned your pet may be affected by a zoonotic disease, or if you would like to ensure their vaccines are up to date, do not hesitate to contact our Fear Free team at Boca Midtowne Animal Hospital.