Animals, including pets, have long been known to give rabies to humans, and for this reason most areas require pets to be vaccinated. Avian influenza, a virus which has just begun its jump from animals to humans, is the current hot topic in global infectious disease. But did you know that there are many more diseases you can contract from your pets if you donít practice careful hygiene?
Cats are prominent in the bird flu pandemic scenario because some individuals in the areas where it is endemic have contracted the disease from their cats, with no exposure to birds at all. Infection generally occurs when the cat eats an infected bird; however, in experimental conditions transmission between cats was possible. Cats are also known carriers of rabies (if un-vaccinated), salmonella (may have diarrhea and vomiting or no symptoms), campylobacter (diarrhea and vomiting also), fungal infections such as tinea corporis (mistakenly termed ringworm), toxoplasmosis, and cat-scratch fever. Most of these are not life-threatening except in immunocompromised individuals (HIV positive, transplant recipients) and pregnant women. However, one other disease that is rarely found in cats, plague (yersinia pestis), is life-threatening. Cats with pneumonic plague present with difficulty breathing and coughing up blood, which may be mistaken for other diseases. They can infect humans as well as other cats.
Like cats, dogs can infect humans with rabies; however, in September 2007 the CDC declared the United States free of canine rabies. Dogs can still contract rabies from wild animals such as raccoons or skunks, however, so vaccination remains a necessity. Dogs can also be infected with salmonella, campylobacter, fungal infections, tapeworm, and very rarely, plague. The brown dog tick can infect both the dog and its owner with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, a potentially fatal disease.
Rodent (hamster, mouse, rat) diseases
The most famous rat-borne disease is plague, which has been a terror to humanity for thousands of years. The actual carrier of the disease is the flea on the rat, and for this reason, other rodents as well as dogs and cats can also infect humans if the fleas move from the rats to other animals. Similarly, murine typhus, typically found with rats, can be transmitted to cats and dogs (then to humans) through fleas. Many rodents carry a resistant strain of salmonella that can infect humans who touch or inhale dust from their feces. A lesser-known disease associated with rodents is lymphocytic choriomeningitis, an infection of the covering of the brain which sometimes spreads to the brain itself.
Other pet diseases
Birds, especially parrots, can cause psittacosis in humans who inhale their excreta or their respiratory secretions. Even people who only have casual contact with a sick bird (such as visitors to pet shops) may become ill, according to researchers Lessnau and Arjomand. The disease may be mild or progress to severe pneumonia. Baby chicks, sometimes sold as pets (especially at Easter), are often infected with salmonella. Reptiles, including turtles, iguanas, and lizards, and fish can also transmit salmonella.
A very important way to prevent infection in humans is thorough hand washing. You should always wash your hands after handling your pet and before eating or touching any mucous membranes such as your eyes, mouth, or nose. Keep your pets free of fleas and ticks as much as possible, following the advice of your veterinarian. If you have unwanted rodents in your home, seek advice from a professional exterminator. Pregnant women should not change litter boxes due to the dangers of toxoplasmosis to the fetus. Anyone whose immune system is not normal should be especially careful around any type of pet. Finally, if you are frequently around animals that can transmit disease through inhaled excreta, you may want to consider wearing a protective mask.
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