Can my pets make me sick?
Household pets such as dogs, cats, birds and reptiles can carry diseases or parasites that make people sick. The good news is this doesn't happen very often. Most pet-to-people diseases can be avoided if you follow a few common-sense rules.
What can I do to avoid pet-to-people diseases?
The most important thing is to try not to touch animal waste products (urine or stool), or objects soiled by the waste products. For example, wash your hands carefully right after cleaning a soiled carpet (including cleaning under your fingernails) or picking up stool.
Don't let small children play in uncovered sandboxes that might be used as litter boxes by neighborhood cats. Keep your children out of the dirt in parks that may be used by local dogs.
Avoid oral contact with your pet, especially sharing food or kissing the pet on the mouth.
Pregnant women and people who have weakened immune systems should never clean out cat litter boxes or handle cat feces because of a disease called toxoplasmosis that is transmitted this way. Toxoplasmosis can cause severe birth defects in an unborn child if the mother is infected during pregnancy. Anyone cleaning out a litter box should wash his or her hands thoroughly afterward.
Reptiles (such as lizards, snakes and turtles) carry a bacterium (germ) that can make people sick. If you have a pet reptile, you should always wash your hands after handling the pet or anything in its cage. You should also be sure to frequently wash the cage, the area around the cage and any items used to clean the cage. Children younger than 5 years of age and people who have weakened immune systems should not handle reptiles or items from the cage.
What can I do to keep my pet healthy?
Have your pet dewormed and vaccinated exactly the way your vet recommends. This not only keeps your pet healthy, it also decreases your risk of getting parasites and diseases from your pet.
It's also important to control fleas and ticks on your pets and in your house. Fleas and ticks can make both you and your pet miserable and, even worse, they can make you sick.
Don't feed raw meat to your pets. Don't let your cat or dog hunt and eat wild animals. This is how cats get the toxoplasmosis parasite. Keep your pets away from wild animals or stray pets (which might be unvaccinated or sick).
What about children and pets?
It's a good idea to watch toddlers while they play with pets. Small children are more likely to get infections from pets because they crawl around on the floor with the animals, kiss them, put their fingers in the pets' mouths and then put their dirty fingers in their own mouths.
Small children are also more likely to be bitten or scratched by pets, since they often do not know how to treat the pet properly. Teach your children how to treat family pets and to avoid strange pets. It may be safest to wait to get a pet until children are past the toddler stage.
Children younger than 5 years of age should also avoid contact with:
- Animals at petting zoos and farms
- Baby chicks
- Baby ducks
- Amphibians (such as frogs, toads and salamanders)
- Reptiles (such as turtles, lizards and snakes)
If you're planning to get a pet, you might consider adopting an older cat or dog, instead of getting a puppy or kitten. This way you can avoid the housebreaking stage and its problems. Older pets that have been well cared for are less likely to spread disease or become ill themselves. Be careful about taking in sick pets or strays because they carry even more risk of making you or your children sick.
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff