Just like the rest of us, your furry friend is also prone to germs, bacteria and bouts of sickness. And in the same way that you might catch a cold from other people, conditions from pets can sometimes be passed on to their owners.
The good news is that most zoonotic diseases (diseases that can be transferred from animals to humans) are quite rare, and those that you could contract are treatable and can be prevented through simple measures.
A great start is knowing which infections are most likely to cross over. Familiarise yourself with the following conditions:
What it is: Cats and dogs can be infected by different worms, but of these, roundworms, tapeworms and hookworms are the ones that humans are susceptible to.
These parasites cause diarrhoea, feelings of weakness and malnutrition in their animal hosts, while symptoms in humans include coughs, abdominal pain, rashes and loss of appetite.
How it spreads: Worms can be transferred to humans through skin contact with worm eggs, or by unknowingly swallowing larvae after being exposed to an infected animal.
- Scabies (sarcoptic mange)
What it is: Sarcoptes scabiei mites are the culprits behind this contagious skin condition. These critters get into the skin, causing itching, scabs and loss of fur in dogs, and itchy skin and a red rash in humans. It does occur in cats but very rarely.
How it spreads: Scabies affects dogs of all breeds and can occur at any time of the year. Having contact with a pet that has been affected can lead to a transfer of the infestation.
What it is: Caused by a Mononegavirales virus, a rabies infection attacks the nervous system and results in inflammation of the brain and spinal cord in dogs and humans. If a bite from an unknown dog that is behaving strangely isn’t treated immediately and clinical symptoms occur, fatality is a certainty. Clinical symptoms include anxiety, hallucinations, insomnia and hydrophobia (fear of water).
How it spreads: People can get rabies through bites and scratches from an infected animal. While cats and wild animals such as bats can contract rabies, according to the World Health Organisation, domestic dogs are the cause of 99% of all human infections.
- Cat scratch disease
What it is: Cat scratch disease is a condition caused by the Bartonella henselae bacteria. The Center for Disease Control in the US estimates that 40% of cats carry the bacteria at some point, but most do not display any symptoms. Complications of the disease in humans affect the brain, eyes and internal organs, and while these are rare, they can be fatal.
How it spreads: Cat scratch disease can spread to humans when an infected cat licks an open wound or breaks the skin when biting or scratching.
What it is: Toxoplasmosis is the result of an infection by the Toxoplasma gondii parasite. Except for kittens, most cats are immune to the disease and will not develop symptoms when infected with the parasite.
Those most vulnerable to toxoplasmosis include people with already compromised immune systems and pregnant women who risk foetal developmental problems if infected.
How it spreads: People can accidentally ingest the parasite after coming into contact with faeces from an infected cat. This often happens after cleaning a litter box or touching anything that has been in contact with cat faeces.
What it is: Giardiasis is caused by the giardia parasite that affects the intestines of humans, dogs, cats and other mammals. An infection leads to abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhoea, and, in some cases, intestinal problems after the infection has cleared.
How it spreads: The giardia parasite can spread from animals to humans after handling excrement from an animal that has been infected.
What it is: Despite what its name implies, ringworm is a skin condition caused by various fungi called dermatophytes. In animals, a ringworm infection results in circular lesions and hair loss, while people will experience red, circular patches on the skin and dry, brittle hair that is prone to breaking.
How it spreads: People can contract ringworm through direct contact with an infected pet or other objects that have been contaminated.
How can you protect yourself?
The best way to reduce your risk of falling victim to any of the above bugs or infections is to safeguard your pet’s health. Dr Karin Wilson of Teva Veterinary Clinic in Somerset West suggests the following measures:
- Deworm your pet regularly (every 4–6 months) with a registered broad spectrum dewormer.
- Keep your pet’s annual vaccinations up to date.
- Use tick and flea control products on your pets.
- Take your pet to the vet if he or she shows any signs of excessive itchiness, diarrhoea or patchy hair loss.
To protect yourself from potential infections, follow these tips:
- Wash your hands after handling a pet or its faeces.
- If your pet is sick with diarrhoea, avoid excessive holding or kissing.
- Get into the habit of using gloves whenever handling cat litter (this is especially important for pregnant women).
- Visit a doctor immediately if an animal that’s behaving strangely bites you.
- Make sure to clean and disinfect wounds if you are bitten or scratched by your cat.
- Keep your cat’s nails trimmed and ensure you don’t let them lick any of your open wounds.
- Always pick up dog faeces in your garden and throw it away.