Petagrees: The diseases we share with our pets

Those of us who care for pets can get unexpected comments from people, including family members and close friends, that our pet companions are covered in germs, vermin and disgusting diseases.

They are talking about the pets we hug, kiss, share our food with, watch movies with, happily spend undisclosed amounts of money on and occasionally give up some of our bed space for them when they sleep next to us. These are the pets we typically consider our family members, closest friends and saviors. OK, maybe some people’s pets are carriers of grossness but not ours, and besides, don't children, food, door handles and hotel beds have a share of the germ and pestilence market?

The sharing of diseases between humans and other animals is called zoonosis and the list changes and grows with our traveling society, food and water shortages, climate change, increasing human populations in previously wild areas and the nature of mutating viruses. Zoonotic diseases are a large focal point of the all-encompassing study/methodology called One Health. One Health is a global embrace of the interconnectedness of humans, animals, plants and the environment.

Here is a brief look at some of the zoonotic bacteria, pests and viruses that we all share with other members of the animal kingdom. Learning about them can help keep you healthy and give pet-scoffing friends the information they need about safety when handling animals, food and being part of this planet.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention along with other health partners such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior created a collaborative list of zoonotic diseases that United States citizens should be aware of. This list is not meant to spread fear, and all information should be further investigated through reliable sources as some of these eight zoonotic diseases are currently rare in United States.

Emerging coronaviruses: These diseases include the current coronavirus (2019-nCoV), severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, and Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS. A large group, the coronaviruses are common in many different species of animals, including camels, cattle, cats and bats, but have been known to infect people who can in turn, spread the virus to other people.

Zoonotic influenza: This includes avian flu and swine flu. A basic scenario to understand how flu viruses become zoonotic is the following: pigs are susceptible to avian, human and swine influenza viruses. They potentially may be infected with influenza viruses from many different species at the same time. When this happens, the genes of these viruses can combine in the pigs' systems to create an entirely new virus. This new virus has the potential to transmit to many other species, including people. This was the case in New York more than a decade ago where a unique feline influenza virus at an infected animal shelter was believed to have transmitted the virus to humans. The exposure was limited and treatment was effective and self-limiting with proper hygiene after coming in contact with cats, their saliva and stool in the region. Similar infections are happening more frequently, so hand-washing after handling animals is becoming more necessary than ever before.

Lyme disease: This should always be a discussion about infected ticks. Lyme disease can potentially affect all mammals but can only be spread by ticks, so your dog or cat cannot transmit Lyme disease to you or family members, or to each other. Every species known to have contracted Lyme disease displays different symptoms from no apparent signs to related death. Lyme disease is associated with dogs, outdoor cats, horses and cows along with wildlife because those animals become a transport system for ticks. Ticks that have attached to their fur can be dislodged and find their way onto lawns, garden paths, dog parks and living rooms, they seek out meals from warm-blooded animals.

Rabies: Rabies is typically contracted by a bite from a rabid animal, but this potentially fatal zoonotic virus can be transmitted by direct contact through wounds or mucous membranes in the eyes, nose or mouth, with saliva or brain/nervous system tissue from an infected animal. All mammals can get rabies, but in the United States, bats, raccoons, skunks, foxes and mongooses are the most common carriers. Dogs are still considered a rabies risk animal. When people have exposure to rabies, treatment needs to begin as soon as possible for this otherwise fatal disease. Transmission of rabies from one person to another is possible but has never been documented.

Salmonella: The CDC’s salmonella facts for lowering your chance of getting a Salmonella infection seem like perfect common sense but pet handlers need reminders that salmonella is in many foods and the contaminated foods usually look and smell normal. Wash your hands thoroughly after touching pets and other animals or their food, water, poop, leashes, toys and dishes. or their beds, cages, tanks, coops and stalls. Do not kiss pets or animals. This is a hard one for some pet owners to accept but substituting with snuggles is advised and do not teach or encourage children to kiss animals for many important reasons.

Plague: For many, the plague is something related to the middle ages, when millions died. But the bacterium yersinia pestis still exists. People contract the plague from a rodent flea that carries the plague bacterium or by handling an animal infected with plague. In the U.S., cases of the plague are associated with proximity to prairie dog colonies in western states and infections are treated effectively with antibiotics.

Brucellosis: This bacterial infection is not often placed in an at-risk category for pet caregivers or anyone who comes in contact with pet or domesticated animals The most common way to be infected with brucellosis is by eating or drinking unpasteurized/raw dairy products from infected animals. Game hunters may also be at risk. When hunters come in contact with infected animals, brucellosis bacteria can enter via inhalation, open cuts and eating undercooked meat. The animals most commonly infected are bison, elk, caribou, moose and wild hogs. The spread of brucellosis between people is extremely rare.

West Nile Virus: This virus is another that is not directly related to pet ownership or even being near animals, as it is most commonly spread to people by the bite of an infected mosquito. Mosquitoes become infected when they feed on infected birds. Infected mosquitoes then spread West Nile virus to people and other animals by biting them. West Nile virus is NOT spread by touching live animals, from handling live or dead infected birds or consuming infected birds or mammals.

It’s important to note how easily bacteria and viruses spread from animal-to-person-to-person and many contagion variables such as climate, environment and health can dictate how hazardous it is. For pet caregivers and those who come in contact with animals, domestic or wild, use caution and always wash your hands. According to the One Health Zoonotic Disease Prioritization Workshop for the United States,  six out of every 10 infectious diseases in people are zoonotic. That relates to a huge number of infectious diseases that link us to other animals, plants and our environment.

A reliable and up to date source of information on these and other zoonotic diseases, the U.S. One Health Zoonotic Disease Prioritization report is available online at

Terry Hannum is a licensed veterinary technician, a farmer and an animal advocate. If you have a subject you would like to have her address, email Her columns can be found at

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