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photo of a woman sitting on the ground with a cat on her lap and golden retriever by her side

Can your pet make you sick?

Pets can be wonderful sources of companionship, joy and comfort. But can they make you sick? Animals can pass diseases to humans, and pets are no exception, says Bania Calero, M.D., a Piedmont family medicine physician. These diseases are called “zoonotic illnesses.”

“The most common illnesses people get from pets are skin infections,” says Dr. Calero. “But there’s a long list of animal-borne infections.”

She says some people are at higher risk of contracting an illness from a pet, such as pregnant people, children under age 5 and those with a compromised immune system. The good news is it’s not super common to get a disease from a pet as long as you keep them healthy and practice the prevention tips mentioned below.

Diseases transmitted from animals to humans

The most common zoonotic illnesses are:

Ringworm. Ringworm isn’t actually a worm—it’s a fungal infection of the top layer of skin. It can cause a ring-like, reddish, itchy, crusty, dry or scaly rash on the skin of animals and humans. Ringworm is highly contagious. In addition to the skin, ringworm can develop on the:

  • Feet (also called athlete’s foot)

  • Scalp (causing temporary baldness at the infection site)

  • Nails (causing discoloration, thickness or brittleness)

While ringworm is hard to prevent, it usually responds well to treatment at home. To reduce the risk of ringworm:

  • Be sure your infected pet or family member gets treated. Humans should apply an over-the-counter antifungal medication. Tell your primary care provider if the infection doesn’t respond to over-the-counter treatment or gets worse. See your veterinarian if your pet has a suspected ringworm infection.

  • Wash the infected family member’s pajamas, clothes and sheets daily.

  • Avoid direct contact with ringworm until it’s cleared up.

  • Keep the infected skin dry and clean.

  • Keep your pet off your bed.

Toxoplasmosis. This disease can cause flu-like symptoms in some people. If you’re pregnant or trying to conceive, it’s important to be aware of toxoplasmosis since it can cause birth defects or miscarriage. To reduce your risk:

  • Wash your hands every time after changing the litterbox.

  • If you’re pregnant or have a weakened immune system, avoid direct contact with cat litter or other areas that might contain cat feces. Ask someone else to change the litterbox while wearing gloves.

  • Don’t feed your cat undercooked or raw meat.

  • Keep your cat inside to reduce their risk of infection.

Cat scratch disease. This is a bacterial infection spread from cat to cat by fleas. You can contract it through a cat bite or scratch. Cat scratch disease can cause a mild infection and flu-like symptoms. In some people, it can lead to heart valve damage. To reduce your risk:

  • Ask your veterinarian how to control fleas.

  • Avoid playing with your cat in a way that might encourage scratching or biting.

  • Don’t allow your cat to lick any wounds you have.

  • Immediately wash cat scratches and bites with soap and water.

If you develop an infection where your cat bit or scratched you, see your health care provider.

Rabies. Though you can get rabies from a pet, you’re more likely to contract the virus from a wild animal bite. To reduce your risk:

  • Be sure your pets are up to date on their rabies shots.

  • Never approach or touch a wild animal.

Seek medical care if you’re bitten or scratched by a wild animal or unvaccinated pet. If a pet bites you, call your doctor to see if you need care. 

Roundworm and hookworm. Roundworm and hookworm are intestinal parasites found in cats and dogs, especially kittens and puppies. You can be exposed to the worms’ larvae or eggs through your pet’s stool. You can also contract hookworms through your skin when playing outside or going barefoot outdoors. Roundworm infections may not cause symptoms, though eye or nerve damage is possible in some individuals. Hookworm infections cause itchy, painful skin infections or gastrointestinal issues. To avoid these parasites:

  • Wear gloves when gardening.

  • Wear shoes outdoors.

  • Have your puppy or kitten dewormed at the vet.

  • Teach your children to wash their hands every time after they play outside or touch a cat or dog.

Salmonella. Salmonella is a bacteria infection that you can get from eating contaminated food. You can also contract it from an infected pet if you don’t clean your hands well after handling their feces. Reptiles, chicks and ducklings are the most common sources of salmonella, but other pets can also carry it. Signs of infection include fever, stomach pain and diarrhea. To reduce your risk:

  • Always wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after contact with your pet’s feces or after handling a reptile or touching surfaces they’ve touched.

  • Avoid contact with ducklings, chicks and reptiles if you have a weakened immune system.

How to prevent animal-borne illnesses

“Cleanliness is really important,” says Dr. Calero. “Keep your pet clean and healthy and keep your home clean as well.”

Here are some tips:

  • Wash your hands after contact with your pet’s stool and food.

  • Wash your hands after playing with your pet and before eating, touching your face or preparing food.

  • Teach your child to wash their hands after touching a pet.

  • Remove pet feces from your yard and public places using a bag and dispose of it in a trash can.

  • Clean your cat’s litterbox daily (or have someone do it for you if you’re pregnant or have a compromised immune system).

  • Keep pet supplies out of the kitchen.

  • Provide your pet with fresh water, a healthy diet, clean bedding and regular exercise.

  • Keep your pet up to date on its vaccinations and take them for regular veterinarian check-ups.

  • Supervise children younger than 5 when they’re interacting with animals.

  • Don’t let your child kiss your pet.

  • Keep children younger than 5 away from farm animals (including backyard chickens), reptiles (like lizards, snakes and turtles) and amphibians (including toads and frogs).

Remember, illnesses from pets are rare as long as you practice good hygiene and keep your furry friend healthy. Pets can offer many health benefits as well.

“Pets can provide emotional support,” says Dr. Calero. “Their companionship has been shown to lower anxiety and depression. They may also encourage you to get more exercise.”

If you have questions about your health, talk to your primary care provider. Need to make an appointment with a Piedmont physician? Save time, book online.

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