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Protecting Pet Owners from Zoonoses

Over the last 50 years, cats and dogs have moved from the garden, into the house and now increasingly onto our beds. While pets provide many emotional and social benefits, they can only do that when both pets and their owners are healthy.

Protecting our pets from zoonooses – illnesses which can be shared between animals and people – mean we can share our lives and homes without risk of spreading infection.

Rabies, which is spread to humans through the bite of an infected dog, is one of the most well-known zoonotic diseases. Other zoonoses are spread to pets from parasites, such as fleas and ticks, or from other animals, and then passed on to humans.

This connection between human and animal health means veterinarians play a significant role in keeping us healthy through good pet health.

Communicating with owners

Scientists estimate that more than six out of every 10 known infectious diseases in people are spread from animals, and three in four new or emerging infectious diseases in people are spread from animals. Companion animals are a potential source for more than 70 human illnesses.

Veterinarians play a crucial role in helping protect the health of pet owners and their loved ones by educating them about managing the risks. Regular veterinary appointments, preventative pet treatment and good hygiene are the cornerstones in limiting the spread of zoonoses.

Parasite control

While pet owners will usually have heard of common parasites such as fleas, worms and ticks, they are less likely to be aware of the zoonotic diseases parasites can carry. For example, bartonellosis, often known as ‘cat scratch disease’, is transmitted to cats through fleas and can infect people through a scratch. Lyme disease, a serious infection carried by contaminated ticks, can be transmitted to cats and dogs, if they bring the infected tick into the home, this can put the whole household at risk.

Climate change is leading to outbreaks of parasites out of season and in new places, and the increasing trend for pet travel means tropical vector-borne diseases are spreading more easily. For example, in Latin America and Brazil, visceral leishmaniasis (VL) a disease spread by sandflies, has reached new canine and human populations in the last two decades.

Because of this, vets are becoming more vigilant, routinely screening imported and travelled pets, while pet owners can help protect pet health and help prevent spread of disease by treating their animals with antiparasiticides regularly.

Good hygiene and health

Close contact between pets and owners can risk disease transmission. Although for many owners, their pets are an extension of their family, sharing a bed with a pet or allowing them to lick your face can significantly increase the spread of disease.

Reptiles, amphibians, rodents and poultry can spread the bacterial disease salmonella. Reptiles and amphibians are responsible for 11 percent of all infections in people under the age of 21.

Veterinarians will often stress the importance of hygiene around pets. It’s important owners regularly wash their hands when spending time with their pets, and frequently clean out cages, litter trays and areas where pets like to play, sleep and eat.

Most pet owners would be surprised to learn zoonoses work both ways – they pose a risk of reverse zoonosis and can transmit infections, such as influenza, to their cats and dogs. That’s why a One Health approach, which recognises the link between human, animal and environmental health may be critical in the fight against global disease.