Pet Predicament: Avoiding Crossover Disease

08.25.2020 Home & Motherhood
Dr. Habib Sadeghi
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Pets bring great joy to our lives and in a loving home, they often feel like one of the family.  Because of this unique bond, we naturally want to spend a lot of time with them.  However, even though we love our pets dearly, most owners don’t realize that their animals can pass a number of diseases to humans.  By taking some simple but important precautions, we can do much to reduce the risk of transmission, while still giving our pets all the love and attention they deserve.

Invisible Infection 

Medical researchers at Ohio State University along with a team of veterinarians recently reviewed 500 international studies regarding animal to human disease transmission.  The result was a special report on how families can minimize this risk by choosing the right kind of pet or making small changes in how they interact with the one they already have. Recommendations were published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. 

Humans can contract over twenty different animal-borne or zoonotic diseases from their pets.  Infants face a higher risk because their immune systems aren’t fully developed yet.  The elderly and pregnant women are also at higher risk because their immunity is waning or suppressed.  Likewise, anyone in the home undergoing medical treatment that compromises immune function, such as chemotherapy, will also need to take extra precautions.  

Salmonella naturally occurs in the digestive tracts of reptiles and amphibians, like turtles, snakes and frogs. E. coli is a fecal-based bacterium that is easily transferred to humans from infected pets.  Toxocariasis is a disease caused by roundworms, parasites that spread through larvae in the feces of cats and dogs. 

Children are most often infected from playing in outdoor areas where the animals are likely to defecate, such as sandboxes. 

Ringworm, a fungal infection that has nothing to do with worms but a round, raised, painful rash can be passed through regular physical contact with an infected pet.  Giardia, a small intestinal parasite common in cats and dogs, is also fecal-based and can be contracted through mishandling of the pet’s droppings or litterbox.  Pets have even been known to become infected with the antibiotic resistant bacteria, Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) or Clostridium difficile.  These are just a few examples, but if you’ve been diagnosed with any of these diseases, you should speak to both your doctor and veterinarian.  Have your pet examined, as well, so you can take the necessary steps to safeguard both of you.  

Right Patient, Right Pet

Since different species of animals like birds, cats, reptiles, dogs, rodents, fish, and amphibians carry different types of diseases at different stages of their lives, it’s best to consult both your doctor and your veterinarian with regard to what kind of pet is the safest choice for your family’s situation. 

“It’s all about safe pet ownership,” said Jason Stull, lead researcher on the Ohio State University study.  “There are very few situations in which a person couldn’t or shouldn’t have some type of pet if they wish. It’s about matching the right species with the right person and taking the appropriate precautions.”

Many times parents get a puppy or kitten for a sick child as a way to lift their spirits during a difficult illness.  While the gesture is a loving one, the choice of pet might not be the best for their child’s condition.   

“We’ve worked with families whose kids are spending a lot of time in physicians’ offices, and for numerous reasons miss out on typical activities with other kids,” Stull added. “Parents may decide to get a puppy or kitten to help replace some of that lost social interaction. But puppies and kittens shed some organisms that adult animals don’t, so an adult animal would probably be a better choice in that situation.”

Unfortunately, most veterinarians and physicians don’t discuss zoonotic disease prevention with their clients and patients.  First, the professionals need to properly educate themselves, then start a health prevention dialogue with pet owners if we are to reduce pet associated diseases.  

This is particularly important as animals become an increasing part of healthcare interventions, like ambassador dogs that visit patients in hospitals or emotional support animals prescribed by mental health professionals.

Simple Safeguards 

Consider these recommendations when interacting with your pet to reduce cross infections.

  • Wear protective gloves to clean aquariums and cages, and remove feces.
  • Wash your hands after every pet contact.
  • Discourage your pets from face licking. 
  • Cover all playground boxes when not in use.
  • Avoid contact with higher risk animals like reptiles, amphibians and other exotic types. 
  • Clean and disinfect animal cages, feeding areas and bedding regularly.
  • Locate litterboxes away from areas where eating and food prep occur.
  • If immune suppressed, wait until your condition improves to get a pet. 
  • Schedule regular veterinary check-ups for your pet. 

Pets are wonderful for our physical and emotional health in so many ways.  Don’t let that great benefit be reduced by contracting a zoonotic disease because you didn’t take some very basic, but powerful steps to protect your health.  When you do so, you’re also protecting the health of your pets because humans can pass all these same diseases along to them, as well. 

For more health insights from Dr. Sadeghi, please visit to sign up for the monthly newsletter or check out his annual health and well-being journal, MegaZEN here. For daily messages of encouragement and humor, follow him on Instagram at @drhabibsadeghi.          

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