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Pets magazine exclusive: Leading vet on ‘Zoonoses’ or diseases you can catch from your pet 


By Mark Hedberg, DrMedVet MRCVS

The veterinary profession is warning that more people will catch TB from their pets, as it is ‘endemic’ in wildlife. Leading vet Mark Hedberg writes exclusively for Pets magazine on zoonotic diseases or infectious diseases that are transmitted between species, specifically from animals to humans.

If you are reading this article, chances are you are one of the estimated 13 million households in the UK that own at least one pet. (PFMA 2012). And if you’ve ever owned a pet, chances are someone’s told you stories about all the nasty bugs and diseases you can get from your animal friends.

The scientific word for a disease you can get from an animal is “zoonosis”. (plural: zoonoses.)

It’s true: there are over a hundred diseases humans can get from animals. The good news is that if you live in the United Kingdom, you’re probably only going to meet with three or four of them.

In this article we’ll cover the three most frequent zoonoses in the UK, and one very famous disease. All of them are treatable, and all of them are preventable.

Gastrointestinal disease

Gastrointestinal disease is what we call a ‘tummy bug’ or ‘food poisoning’. It happens when bacteria or viruses get into our food or into our mouth. Most commonly this occurs when you forget to wash your hands before eating, especially after playing with animals.

Reptiles are often accused of carrying salmonella, but the truth is, dogs and cats can carry it too. The prevention: never let your pets eat off your plate, and always wash your hands after playing or working with your pets. Always wash your hands before eating, no matter what.

Skin disease

One of the most common things people pick up from stray animals is ringworm. No, it’s not a worm. Ringworm is a skin fungus; you first notice it when you get a ring-shaped itchy bad spot on your skin. It’s easily treatable with anti-fungal skin creams from your chemist. Stubborn cases should be seen by your GP.

Fleas and mites can also pass from a pet to a human; this usually only happens when your pet has a severe flea or mite infestation. Treatment with an anti-flea spot-on solution can help control this. In case of severe infestation, you may need to get a prescription-strength product from your vet.  (Always read the instructions before using any medicine on your pet! Dog flea medication can KILL cats!)

Bites and Scratches

The mouth of a dog is full of germs – they’re constantly sniffing, licking, digging and chewing their way through their daily walk. Cats can scratch and dig with the best of them, as well as catching mice and birds. Is it any wonder that many bites and scratches become infected?

Untreated bite and scratch wounds can cause severe discomfort, and in extreme cases may require hospitalization. Yes, this is a zoonosis too – you’ve gotten this disease from an animal! As long as we spend time with animals, there is the risk of catching a disease from them. Don’t panic – common sense precautions and good hygiene are your best ally to prevent catching most diseases from pets!

Exotic animals are frequent culprits too – the NHS estimates that bites and injuries from reptiles caused 760 consultations, 709 hospital stays, and 2121 days in hospital for patients between 2004 and 2012!

The Truth about Toxoplasma

No article on zoonosis would be complete without a mention of toxoplasma. This disease is responsible for a huge number of wrongly re-homed cats. I’ve heard people believe all kinds of things about toxoplasma. Some people think toxoplasma can cause harm to women and children. One gentleman informed me that he wanted to re-home his cat, as a cat would cause his pregnant wife to die. (This is absolutely NOT true.)

  • Toxoplasma is a parasite – and cats can carry it. If a pregnant woman is infected with toxoplasma, her unborn baby may suffer birth defects. 

  • Toxoplasma is transmitted through undercooked or contaminated meat, contaminated dirt, and cat faeces. Fortunately, the only way to catch toxoplasma is to eat it. You heard me – cook your meat thoroughly, and don’t eat cat poop!

  • Handling your cat is perfectly safe. If you are pregnant – have someone else clean your cat’s litter tray; and have them wash their hands when they’re done. Dispose of the used litter and cat faeces promptly. 

  • If you are pregnant and have to clean the litter tray, use gloves. Wash your fruit and veg thoroughly before eating them, and don’t drink unpasteurized milk.

  • Still worried? A blood test can check if you have ever been exposed to toxoplasma. 

  • If you have, you’re safe – you can’t catch it twice.

Life, of course, isn’t risk free. As long as we spend time with animals, there is the risk of catching a disease from them.

Don’t panic – common sense precautions and good hygiene are your best ally to prevent catching most diseases from pets!

Mark currently works for The College of Animal Welfare, a non-profit animal care and veterinary nurse college in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire.