Pet Talk: Zoonotic Diseases

Whether pet owners are walking in the park, going on a road trip, or even just lying in bed, spending time with four-legged friends is a part of daily life.

Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. 

However, spending time with pets comes with the responsibility of keeping them healthy. Regular veterinarian checkups is important, especially in helping to prevent pets from becoming sick or infected with diseases—including zoonotic diseases, which can be transmitted to people.

Dr. Angela Arenas, assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, explained what zoonotic diseases are and how they are transmitted. “A zoonotic disease is an infectious disease that can be transmitted between animals and humans,” she said. “Oral-fecal route is a common route of infection. For example, a zoonotic disease can be spread when a human has touched something contaminated with an infected pet’s fecal material, and then they accidentally touch their mouth. Additionally, vegetables that have not been washed appropriately and have been contaminated with fecal material is another example of an oral-fecal route of infection.”

Arenas said sandboxes for children could also be a potential source of zoonotic infection, since cats may use the sandbox as a litter box. If children are playing in the backyard where infected pets defecate, this could also be a potential source of a zoonotic infection.

Common zoonotic diseases can spread through parasites and fungal, bacterial, and viral infections, Arenas said. Examples of parasitic zoonotic diseases include hookworms and roundworms. Ringworm, a fungal infection that is often misunderstood as a parasite, is also a zoonotic disease. Other examples of zoonotic diseases include Salmonella, a bacterium that often causes food poisoning, and rabies, a viral infection.

In general, any abnormalities in your pet’s behavior, diet, and fecal routine should be reported to your veterinarian, Arenas said. If irregular behaviors persist, such as fatigue, loss of appetite, and frequent diarrhea, your veterinarian should be notified immediately to help your pet return to its healthy routine.

However, it is important to remember that irregular behavior does not mean your pet has a zoonotic disease; but a check-up at the veterinarian could help properly diagnose your pet—whether they have a zoonotic disease or not.

Additionally, if you or other members of the household notice a change in personal health, contact your health care provider.

To help you and your family stay healthy, be sure to thoroughly wash hands and vegetables before eating, cover your children’s’ sandbox when it is not in use, and if bitten by a dog, seek help with your medical professional. To keep your pet healthy, ensure your pet is receiving routine veterinary care and vaccinations. Be sure to ask your veterinarian about a flea and tick prevention plan as well.

Arenas encouraged pet owners to become familiar with some of the common types of zoonotic diseases, especially within their area. Knowing the signs of these diseases and providing pets with routine veterinary care can reduce the risk of zoonotic diseases in your household and keep you and your pets healthy.