You walk in the door, and your pup practically knocks you over with excitement. The last thing you think as he licks your face is catching salmonella, E. coli, or roundworms, right?
Well, not to put the kibosh on those feel-good furry snuggle sessions, but a new review published in The Canadian Medical Association Journal looked at more than 500 studies to make recommendations on how to minimize our risk of catching zoonotic diseases—meaning ones we can get from our pets.
Some of the scary facts this review uncovered? There are nearly 20 diseases that people can get from their furry friends—especially when their immune system is compromised. (Think: pregnant women, infants, the elderly, and those with an illness that harms their immune function, such as cancer.)
“Pets are so good for us in terms of mental, physical, and emotional health—but they also naturally shed organisms in their feces, saliva, or even from their skin that can cause disease, says Jason Stull, assistant professor of veterinary preventive medicine at Ohio State University. “While this is rare, it is important to be aware of what you can get, who’s at risk, and what to do to reduce your risk.”
Some of the most common zoonotic diseases to watch out for:
E. coli and Salmonella
Although relatively rare in pets, they can pick up these infections via tainted pet food. “People become most at risk just by handling the contaminated pet food,” says Kim Smyth, a staff veterinarian for Petplan pet insurance.
Roundworms and Hookworms
These parasitic infections are particularly important to keep in mind if you’re a pet parent with children, who don’t always wash their hands after handling animals, says Smyth. “Roundworms can cause ocular lesions that lead to blindness, and hookworms can cause a nasty skin rash,” she says. “So it’s serious business.”
Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) and Clostridium Difficile (C. diff)
Researchers believe that these infections actually come from people and that pets who become sick can spread it back to other people. “Not all pets who are exposed to these infections develop illness, but pets who are immune-compromised could easily progress to infection,” says Smyth. If you or someone in your family has been diagnosed with one of these diseases, talk to your health-care provider and veterinarian about the precautions to take in order to safeguard your pets.
This viral disease is transmitted through saliva or bites and attacks the central nervous system, causing severe neurological symptoms. (It’s actually the deadliest disease on Earth, with a 99.9 percent fatality rate, but is 100 percent preventable with prompt medical care.)
Bartonella (a.k.a. Cat-Scratch Disease)
This is a bacterial infection spread by cats when an infected animal licks a person’s open wound or bites or scratches a person hard enough to break the skin. A mild infection can occur at the side of the scratch or bite, appearing swollen and red with round, raised lesions that can have pus.
A parasite called Toxoplasma gondii causes this disease, which actually affects very few people even if they’re exposed (our immune system usually prevents the parasite from causing illness). However, pregnant women and those with weaker immune systems should watch out; the infection can occur if your cat has shed Toxoplasma in its feces and, say, you clean its litter box (or touch a stray cat’s feces when you’re gardening).
Wondering whether or not you’ve already been exposed to a zoonotic disease—and resisting your natural urge to cuddle up with your cat on the couch as a result? Here are five simple steps that’ll keep you safe while you keep your four-legged buddies feeling the love:
1. Talk to Your Vet—and Your Family Doc—About Your Risk
If you’re thinking of adding a furry family member to your house, it’s important to do a little research to find the safest pet choice for your family before you go to the pet store or animal shelter. Since different species of animals carry different types of diseases—and at different stages of life—it can really pay to get some expert advice, based on your family situation. “For example, puppies and kittens shed some organisms that adult animals don’t, which means that if you’re spending a lot of time in doctors’ offices and have a compromised immune system, an older animal may be a better choice for you,” says Stull.
2. Use a Scoop to Pick up That Poop
And wash your hands as soon as you can after handling your pet’s feces, even if you pick it up with a plastic bag. “For the average person, the best way to prevent these zoonotic diseases is by hand washing,” says Stull.
3. Regularly Clean and Disinfect Animal Cages, Feeding Areas, and Bedding
Since animals can potentially get bacteria on their fur or skin, it’s a good idea to maintain the area where they live, says Stull. “It’ll help reduce the amount of different types of disease-causing organisms in those environments,” he says.
4. Don’t Keep Your Cat’s Litter Box Near the Area Where You Eat or Prep Food
Sounds obvious, but a lot of people don’t do this, says Stull. Another must if you have small kids: Make sure they know your kitty’s litter box is off-limits. “Kids explore and go places where they shouldn’t,” says Stull, making it crucial to keep the litter box in a spot that’s out of reach.
5. Schedule Regular Vet Appointments
This will ensure your pet stays up-to-date on his vaccines and also gives your vet a chance to regularly test for things like parasites in your animal’s feces, says Stull. “It’s also a good idea to take your pet to the veterinarian at the first sign of illness,” says Smyth, “because the sooner treatment starts, the less time your pet will be infectious.”