The way we interact with pets has undergone significant changes in recent years. The number of pet owners has reached an all-time high, with a recent survey revealing that 69% of Australian households have at least one pet. Australians spend approximately A$33 billion annually on caring for their beloved pets.
While owning a pet has been shown to have numerous mental and physical health benefits, it’s important to be aware that our pets can also carry infectious diseases that can be transmitted to humans. For most people, the risk of getting sick from their pets is low.
However, certain individuals, such as pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems, are at a higher risk of contracting illnesses from animals. Therefore, it is crucial to understand the risks involved and take necessary precautions to prevent infections.
Zoonotic diseases, which are infectious diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans, are a concern. There are more than 70 known pathogens in companion animals that can be transmitted to people. In some cases, a pet carrying a zoonotic pathogen may display visible signs of illness. However, often there are no visible symptoms, making it easier for humans to contract the disease unknowingly.
Zoonoses can be transmitted directly from pets to humans through contact with saliva, bodily fluids, and feces. Indirect transmission can occur through contact with contaminated bedding, soil, food, or water.
Studies suggest that the prevalence of pet-associated zoonoses is low. However, the true number of infections is likely underestimated due to many zoonoses not being “notifiable” or having generic symptoms or multiple exposure pathways.
Dogs and cats are major reservoirs for zoonotic infections caused by viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites. In regions like Africa and Asia, dogs are the primary source of rabies transmission through saliva.
Dogs also commonly carry Capnocytophaga bacteria in their mouths and saliva, which can be transmitted to humans through close contact or bites. While the majority of people won’t get sick, these bacteria can cause severe illness and even death in individuals with weakened immune systems.
Cat-associated zoonoses include illnesses spread through the fecal-oral route, such as giardiasis, campylobacteriosis, salmonellosis, and toxoplasmosis. It is crucial to wash hands or use gloves when handling a cat’s litter tray.
Cats can also transmit infections through bites and scratches, including cat scratch disease caused by Bartonella henselae bacteria.
Both dogs and cats can be reservoirs for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), and close contact with pets is identified as a significant risk factor for zoonotic transmission.
It’s not just dogs and cats that can transmit diseases to humans. Pet birds can occasionally transmit psittacosis, a bacterial infection causing pneumonia. Contact with pet turtles has been linked to Salmonella infections, particularly in young children. Even pet fish have been associated with bacterial infections in humans, including vibriosis, mycobacteriosis, and salmonellosis.
Close contact with animals and certain behaviors increase the risk of zoonotic transmission. A study found that 50% of pet owners allowed their pets to lick their faces, and 18% allowed dogs to share their beds. Allowing pets in bed increases exposure to pathogens carried by pets. The same study found that 45% of cat owners allowed their cats to jump onto kitchen sinks.
Kissing pets has also been linked to occasional zoonotic infections in pet owners. For example, a woman in Japan developed meningitis due to Pasteurella multicoda infection after regularly kissing her dog’s face. These bacteria are often found in the oral cavities of dogs and cats.
Young children are more likely to engage in behaviors that increase their risk of contracting animal-borne diseases, such as putting their hands in their mouths after touching pets. They are also less likely to properly wash their hands after handling pets.
While anyone who comes into contact with a zoonotic pathogen through their pet can become sick, certain individuals are more likely to experience severe illness. These include young children, the elderly, pregnant women, and those with weakened immune systems.
To reduce the risk of becoming sick, it is important to practice good hygiene and pet care. This includes washing hands after playing with pets or handling their bedding, toys, or cleaning up after them. It is also advised not to allow pets to lick faces or open wounds and to supervise young children when they interact with pets. Wearing gloves when changing litter trays or cleaning aquariums, wetting bird cage surfaces during cleaning to minimize aerosols, and keeping pets out of the kitchen are also recommended.
Keeping up with preventative veterinary care, including vaccinations and treatments for worms and ticks, is essential. If you suspect your pet is unwell, seeking veterinary care is important.
Individuals at a higher risk of illness should take extra precautions to reduce