Zoonotic Diseases

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Zoonotic Diseases- What Are They and How Do I Prevent Them?

A zoonotic disease is one that can be transmitted from an animal to a person.  Children, the elderly and immunocompromised individuals are most at risk to contract these diseases.  These diseases can often be prevented by good hygiene and regular deworming.  The following is a brief summary of some of the most common zoonotic diseases.
Intestinal parasites

Roundworms:  The canine roundworm can cause a condition called “visceral larval migrans”.  It occurs mostly in children after they ingest feces that contain roundworm eggs.  This can even occur if the child touches the soil contaminated with eggs and then puts their hand in their mouth.  The roundworm can migrate to the eye and cause an extreme inflammatory reaction and even permanent vision loss.  For this reason, pets should not be allowed to defecate in areas where children play, and children should be taught proper hand-washing.  Monthly pet deworming will also prevent the spread of this infection.

Hookworms:  Hookworms can also be transmitted to people if egg-containing feces is ingested.  Some species of hookworm larvae can penetrate skin and migrate causing a disease called “cutaneous larva migrans”.  The lesions resemble red lines under the skin and often are very itchy.  That mostly occurs if walking bare-footed on contaminated moist soil or sand.  It is important to wear shoes when walking in an area that could possibly be contaminated with hookworm larvae.

Giardia:  Giardia is a one-celled organism that inhabits the gastrointestinal tract of humans, dogs, cats, cows, and other animals.  It is transmitted by handling contaminated feces or soil or ingesting contaminated water.  People most commonly get it from drinking water contaminated with feces.  Infection often leads to diarrhea and weight loss in both animals and people.  Avoid drinking water from streams or lakes.

Toxoplasmosis:  Toxoplasmosis is also a single-celled organism that inhabits the intestinal tract.  Most infections occur through the consumption of undercooked meat.  However, handling cat feces and gardening can also lead to infection.  Pregnant women are most at risk for this disease, and they should avoid handling cat feces.  The litter box should be changed by another family member on a daily basis.  Avoid eating undercooked meat, and wear gloves when gardening.
Fungal Infections

Ringworm:    Ringworm does not involve an actual worm; it is a fungus that infects the hair, nails, and skin.  The fungus causes a unique circular lesion in humans.  It is most commonly a problem in cats; however dogs and horses can get ringworm as well.  In animals, it often appears as hair loss and itching, although some animals show no symptoms at all.  Once your veterinarian diagnoses ringworm, the environment must be cleaned thoroughly (vacuuming and steam-cleaning).  If your pet shows signs of ringworm, it’s very important to get a diagnosis and treatment from your veterinarian early in the course of the disease in order to prevent exposure to other members of the household.
Bacterial Infections

Bartonellosis:  This disease is also known as “cat scratch fever.”  It is caused by bacteria that is transmitted to cats via flea feces.  The cat gets flea feces (“flea dirt”) under their claws and then transmits the bacteria to humans by scratching them.  In humans, the disease causes swollen, painful lymph nodes and fever.  In the immunocompromised individual, much more serious disease can occur.  Immunocompromised individuals should avoid cat scratches and all cats should be on a consistent quality flea control.

Follow these steps to help prevent transmission of zoonotic disease:
  • Keep your pet on monthly heartworm preventative that contains a deworming agent.  Also keep your pet on monthly flea and tick control.
  • Make sure that your pet’s feces is examined by your veterinarian at least every 6 months in order to detect infection.
  • Wear shoes when walking outdoors.
  • Always pick up feces, especially in areas where children may be playing.
  • Practice good hygiene by washing your hands after handling pets and before eating (especially important to teach children).