Did you know that July 6th is World Zoonoses Day? Maybe “zoonoses” is not a word in your everyday conversations, but it is something you should know about!
What does zoonoses mean? Animals – whether wild or domesticated – can carry bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites which can be “shared” with humans and cause disease. Zoonosis (plural is zoonoses) refers to any infectious disease that can be spread from animals to humans, directly through bites or scratches, and indirectly from insect bites (e.g., Lyme disease), contaminated food or water (e.g., toxoplasmosis), and poor hygiene (e.g., after handling pet feces or digging in your flower beds!) Some zoonoses are mild, causing few symptoms, while others are serious and can even be fatal.
Why is there a special day to recognize these diseases? World Zoonoses Day commemorates the day in 1885 when Louis Pasteur successfully administered the first vaccine against rabies – one of the most well-known zoonotic diseases.
How many zoonotic diseases are there? While there are hundreds of zoonotic diseases, thankfully many are rare.
Who is at risk of becoming infected with a zoonotic disease? Everyone is at risk, but the risk is greater for infants, young children, seniors, and those with compromised immune systems. You can reduce the risk by being aware of the potential for disease transmission, taking precautions, using preventive measures, and seeking immediate treatment if you think you’ve been exposed.
Some zoonotic diseases that you should be aware of include:
Rabies. Nearly always fatal once symptoms appear, rabies is caused by a virus that affects the nervous system of animals, including humans. The rabies virus is transmitted in saliva when an infected animal bites a person or saliva enters an open wound. Contracting rabies from your pet is avoidable by following your veterinarian’s vaccination recommendations. It’s the law to vaccinate pets like dogs and cats, as rabies is a public health concern. Vaccination not only protects your pet, but you too. If you are ever bitten by an animal, wild or domesticated, see your physician right away.
Ringworm. The name “ringworm” is misleading, as it’s not actually a “worm” that causes the infection, but a fungus. Ringworm may be transmitted through contact with an infected animal or contact with objects in the environment that are contaminated with the fungus. Ringworm can live on objects, such as furniture, bedding, carpet, food and water bowls, and combs and brushes, for up to 18 months, and remain contagious. If your pet has ringworm, you can prevent it from spreading to you and your family by cleaning your pet’s environment, wearing gloves while handling your pet, and washing your hands thoroughly and frequently. If you suspect your pet has ringworm, see your veterinarian.
Giardiasis. Commonly known as “Beaver Fever,” giardiasis is caused by a parasitic organism called Giardia. Giardiasis can cause symptoms such as diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and weight loss. It occurs in many animals, including cats and dogs, and is spread through contamination by feces. Not all pets will show symptoms of giardiasis, so it’s important to always wash your hands thoroughly after handling your pet’s feces to prevent the spread of disease. If you suspect your pet has giardiasis, see your veterinarian.
Roundworm. Roundworm, unlike ringworm, is an actual “worm”! Roundworms, also known as ascarids, are parasites that live in the intestines of animals. Roundworm eggs can be inadvertently ingested by children when playing in soil or sandboxes that infected cats or dogs have used as their “bathroom.” Roundworm infection can be prevented in your pet by regularly administering a dewormer as recommended by your veterinarian. The risk of infection with roundworm can be reduced by immediately picking up animal feces so the soil/sand does not become contaminated, thoroughly washing hands after working or playing outdoors (and before eating or drinking), and ensuring that young children do not put dirt or sand in their mouths.
Toxoplasmosis. Toxoplasmosis is caused by infection with Toxoplasma gondii which is a single-celled parasitic organism. Infected cats can pass oocysts (a form of eggs) in their feces, which can contaminate the soil. People can become infected from improper hygiene after working in the garden or handling cat feces, and by eating foods contaminated with oocysts (such as garden vegetables). The symptoms of toxoplasmosis are typically mild and flu-like, but can cause serious problems during pregnancy, including miscarriage, stillbirth, or damage to the baby’s organs. While the chances of acquiring toxoplasmosis from your cat are low, it is important to always practice good hygiene after cleaning the litterbox or working in the garden.
Lyme disease. Ticks and Lyme disease have been in the news a lot lately. Lyme disease is caused by the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi which is transmitted through the bite of the black legged tick. With climate change, the natural range of black legged ticks (also known as deer ticks) is expanding. While your pet cannot directly transmit Lyme disease to you, he can bring ticks into your home. The symptoms of Lyme disease can range from mild to severe, and can even cause death. Limiting tick exposure by using a veterinary-recommended tick preventive is important, not only for your dog’s health, but for yours too.
How do I reduce the risk of acquiring a zoonotic disease?
- Vaccinate and deworm your pet according to your veterinarian’s recommendations
- Use flea and tick preventives on your pet
- Follow good hygiene practices by thoroughly washing your hands with soap and water
- Follow good hygiene practices by keeping your yard free of feces (from pets and wildlife), regularly cleaning your pet’s bedding, food and water dishes, and the areas he spends much of his time
- Avoid animal bites and scratches (from pets or wildlife)
- Seek medical care with animal bites and scratches, and if you find a tick on yourself
The easiest way to protect yourself from zoonotic diseases is to keep your pets healthy. Your best defense is having regular veterinary wellness checks, keeping up to date with your pet’s vaccinations, using flea and tick preventives, and deworming your pet as recommended by your veterinarian.