Zoonotic Diseases and Pets FAQ

October 7, 2008

 

Q: Can animals carry diseases I can catch?

A: Yes, they can. Diseases passed from animals to humans are called "zoonotic" (pronounced "zoe-oh-NOT-ick") diseases.

Q: Are these diseases deadly?

A: Some, such as rabies, are deadly. Many others are not, but can still make you sick.

Q: What is the risk that I or my children will become infected?

A: The risk is low, if you use common sense and good hygiene and keep your pet healthy.

Q: Are certain people more likely to catch these diseases and become sick?

A: Yes. People whose immune systems aren't working normally are at higher risk of catching these diseases and becoming sick because their immune systems can't fight off infections as well as healthy people. Very young or very old people, people with diseases such as cancer or HIV infection, and people who are receiving medical therapy or medications (such as chemotherapy or steroids) that can affect their immune systems should be especially careful around animals.

Q: Are certain animals more likely to carry these diseases?

A: Yes, but any animal (or pet) can carry disease if they become infected. For example, birds (including chicks) and certain species of reptiles and rodents may be more likely to carry Salmonella, a type of bacteria that can cause intestinal problems and other infections. Salmonella can also be carried by other animals (including dogs, cats, and horses) and people. Hamsters can carry a virus that can cause nervous system disease. Cats can infect people with an organism that causes toxoplasmosis, a disease that can cause problems for pregnant women or people with poorly functioning immune systems. Dog roundworms can infect people and cause skin problems, blindness, or organ damage.

Healthy pets of any species are less likely to be infected and pass the infection to you.

Q: Should I even get a pet, if there's any risk it could give me a disease?

A: Pets provide many benefits for people, including companionship and protection, and pet ownership is a very rewarding experience. Many pet owners consider their pets to be members of their families.

The decision to get a pet is a personal decision, and should be based on a number of factors, including your family's lifestyle, living arrangements, and others. Although the possibility of disease is an important factor to think about, the risk is low and often considered to be outweighed by the benefits of pet ownership. Additionally, there are many simple things you can do to minimize your risk.

Q: How can I prevent my pet from making me sick?

A: There are many simple steps you can take to prevent your pet and your family from getting sick.

  • First of all, healthy pets are much less likely to carry diseases that can infect you. Taking your pet to the veterinarian for regular check-ups, vaccinations, and deworming is a simple way to keep them healthy. Keeping your pets free of fleas and ticks is also important. If you are buying a pet, don't purchase a pet that looks ill or unhealthy.
  • Don't handle your pet's stool or urine. Wear disposable gloves (or gloves that can easily be disinfected) when cleaning the cat's litter box, and use a scooper or something to cover your hand when picking up after your dog.
  • Clean up after your pet. Keep your cat's litter box clean, and keep your yard free of dog waste.
  • After handling your pet, or its food or bedding, or cleaning up after your pet (even if you were wearing gloves), thoroughly wash your hands. This is especially important before you eat anything. Make sure children know to wash their hands after contact with any animal, or wash your children's hands for them if they are not able to do it.
  • Don't let your pets (or children, for that matter) come in contact with stray or wild animals. These animals are much more likely to have diseases that can infect your pet and possibly infect you.
  • Don't let your pets lick you in the mouth, and teach children not to put their mouths on animals or put any part of the animal's body in their mouth.
  • Keep your family healthy. If the people in the family are healthy, they are less likely to be infected, even if the pet becomes infected, because their immune systems are healthy.

Q: I just read a news article that says families with children under 5 years of age shouldn't own pets like hamsters, lizards, turtles, hedgehogs, etc. We already have one of these as a pet. Should we get rid of it?

A: Although that decision is up to you, we encourage you to discuss it with your veterinarian. Often, there are simple things you can do, such as following the guidelines listed above, that will keep your family safe and allow you to keep your pet. If you decide that you cannot keep your pet, please find your pet a suitable home. Turning a pet loose outside is not good for the animal or the environment. Even though many species kept as pets were originally wild animals, they no longer have the instincts that allow them to survive in the wild. Your veterinarian's office, local animal shelter, pet rescue, or other organization can help you find a new home for your pet.

Q: I'm thinking of getting a pet, but I have young children. What's the best pet to get? Should I get a pet at all?

A: Getting a pet is not a decision that should be made lightly. It is a big responsibility. It is very important to get a pet that best fits your family's lifestyle and needs. In some cases, the best decision is to postpone getting a pet until the children are older. However, many families have young children and pets and have not had any difficulties. Veterinarians are very good source of information on pet selection. In addition, the AVMA has a number of brochures about pet selection: they can be viewed at https://ebusiness.avma.org/ProductCatalog/productcategory.aspx?ID=132.

Q: What are "nontraditional" pets?

A: Many people consider domestic cats and dogs to be traditional pets; any other species kept as a pet is considered nontraditional. Examples include amphibians (frogs, toads, etc.), fish, reptiles (turtles, lizards, snakes, etc.), birds, ferrets, rabbits, rodents (rats, mice, gerbils, hamsters, guinea pigs, chinchilla, hedgehogs, etc.).

Q: Do "nontraditional" pets make good pets?

A: They certainly can make good, even great, pets for responsible pet owners. Some of these animals require special care or housing, so it's important to thoroughly research any animal you consider getting for a pet—this includes cats and dogs, too. Some people have allergies to cats and/or dogs, and nontraditional pets offer these people options for having a pet that doesn't trigger their allergies. In addition, many of these nontraditional pets can form strong bonds with their owners, and owning a nontraditional pet can be very rewarding.

Q: What animals do not make good pets?

A: Wild animals are not good pets; they can be dangerous and are more likely to carry diseases. Skunks, raccoons, foxes, squirrels, coyotes, wild birds and other wild animals should be left in the wild; if they are injured, they should be cared for by licensed wildlife rehabilitators. Zoo animals (including lions and tigers) are not good pets, either; these animals require special care and diets, and can be dangerous. Nonhuman primates (monkeys, chimpanzees, etc.) are not good pets because they can be dangerous and are more likely to carry diseases that can infect you and your family.

Q: I have questions about a specific type of pet. Where should I go?

A: Your veterinarian is the best source of information about pets.

Q: What about the animal kept in my child's classroom? Should I tell my child not to handle it? Should I tell the school to get rid of the animal?

A: Classroom pets provide very valuable learning experiences for children, and keeping the pet healthy is just as important for classroom pets as it is for family pets. Children should be taught how to handle the pet(s) and taught proper hygiene (such as washing their hands after handling the pet). If you have concerns about the classroom animals, you should discuss them with the school and a veterinarian.

Q: Should I keep my child away from petting zoos or any other activities that involve animals until they are older?

A: This decision is up to you and your family to decide. Please keep in mind that animals offer valuable educational opportunities. Animals offer companionship and teach children responsibility and respect for all living things, and stimulate their curiosity and interest in learning. If you choose to allow your young children to participate in these activities, adult supervision is necessary to ensure that the children are exposed to the animals in a safe manner and good hygiene practices are followed.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have guidelines for families visiting animal exhibits. These guidelines, including directions for washing hands, can be viewed at http://www.cdc.gov/Features/AnimalExhibits/.

Other resources:

Healthy Pets, Healthy People Web site: http://www.cdc.gov/HEALTHYPETS/ 

When you acquire a pet, you are making a promise to accept responsibility for the health and welfare of another living creature for its lifetime. You also agree to be responsible for your pet's impact on your family, friends, and community. Choose your pet wisely, keep your promise, and enjoy one of life's most rewarding experiences!

This information has been prepared as a service by the American Veterinary Medical Association. Redistribution is acceptable, but the document's original content and format must be maintained, and its source must be prominently identified. Please contact Dr. Kimberly May (800.248.2862, ext 6667) with questions or comments.