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The Daily Vet by petMD

The Daily Vet is a blog featuring veterinarians from all walks of life. Every week they will tackle entertaining, interesting, and sometimes difficult topics in the world of animal medicine – all in the hopes that their unique insights and personal experiences will help you to understand your pets.

Reduce the Potential for Zoonotic Disease Transmission

What makes a kid-friendly pet? From my standpoint as a clinical practice veterinarian, kid-friendly pets are those that won't directly traumatize a child or spread illness.


Pets always have the potential to traumatize a child by scratching, biting, or pushing one over. Additionally, a pet’s aggressive behavior, or an obvious size disparity, could intimidate a child.


An equally important issue affecting the relationship between pets and kids is the potential for zoonotic disease. Bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites, or other agents (prions) all have zoonotic potential, meaning they can spread between animals and humans, or vice versa.


These diseases transfer among species through direct contact or with the help of a vector. An insect (arthropod) such as a flea, fly, tick or mosquito can serve as the vector for transmission of an infectious agent between animals within the same species (e.g., from dog to dog) or from an animal to a person (e.g., dog to person), as happens with zoonotic diseases.


The potential for zoonosis depends on a variety of factors, including climate, geography, population density, sanitary conditions (or lack thereof), grooming habits, and other factors.


Zoonotic diseases that are relatively common and have realistic potential to transmit between pets and people include (but are not exclusive to):




Bartonella henselae is a bacterium transmitted into animals through an arthropod vector, often fleas. Bartonella can then enter a person through a bite wound or scratch from a dog or cat (hence the name "Cat Scratch Fever"). Bartonella most commonly infects people with compromised or developing immune systems, including pregnant women, those suffering from HIV/AIDS or cancer, very young children, etc.).


E. Coli and Salmonella


Both bacteria can transmit directly between species or contaminate food and water sources. Pets can infect people with E. Coli and salmonella when fecal material contacts a person’s skin or clothes and enters through a body opening (mouth, nose, etc.).




This spirochete (spiral shaped) bacteria typically infects animals or humans after they have consumed or had direct exposure to water sources contaminated with urine from wildlife. Stagnant bodies of water or puddles from rainfall are common reservoirs for leptospirosis (commonly referred to as lepto). Humans can contract lepto from pets through contact with any body fluid, especially urine.




This protozoa (microorganism) commonly affects pets or people who drink water contaminated with feces from domesticated or wild animals. Dog parks, animal shelters and breeding facilities are hot zones for giardia.




Hookworms, roundworms and whipworms are parasites capable of infecting cats, dogs, and humans. Worms are most commonly found in kittens and puppies, and in adults living in cramped or unsanitary conditions.




Rabies virus transmission from an animal to a human (or from a bat or other wild animal bite) is uncommon in the United States, yet is often fatal when it does occur.




H1N1, swine flu, influenza virus


Yes, the “flu” can transmit between people and pets, as was well documented during the 2009 H1N1 (Swine Flu, now termed North American Influenza) pandemic. Humans infected dogs, cats, ferrets, and even pigs (yes, humans gave swine flu to some pigs).


Dermatophytosis (ringworm)


Multiple fungal organisms (Microsporum sp., Trichophyton sp., etc.) cause this skin infection with the deceiving name (it’s not a worm). Patchy, circular, red, hairless lesions are the benchmark of this zoonosis. Dermatophytosis is a great imitator of other skin conditions (bacterial and yeast infections).




I’m merely going to lend mention to zoonotic diseases that are less common or non-existent (but for in laboratories) in the United States, including:




A hemorrhagic fever virus, popularized by the book and movie, The Hot Zone.


Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy (TSE)

A degenerative brain and spinal cord disease caused by a prion (self-replicating protein). An outbreak of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), AKA Mad Cow Disease, in the mid-1990s resulted in a wave of anti-beef activism after Oprah Winfrey cast a spotlight on the beef industry.



The Bacillus anthracis bacterium produces toxins that often kill an infected animal or person within a few days. My experience of being cultured for Anthrax (my test was negative) and ingesting a course of Ciprofloxacin was one of the motivating factors that led to my move from post 9-11 Washington, D.C.




What's the key to keeping both your pets and children safe from zoonotic diseases? My top recommendation is to apply multiple precautionary tactics to your home, pets, kids, and self:

  • Vacuum your carpets and upholstery (empty the canister outside and away from the home or seal the vacuum bag in plastic) and wash human and pet bedding on at least a weekly basis.
  • Prevent your pet from entering environments that harbor populations of fleas, ticks, and other arthropods. If you must go into areas endemic with these organisms, do so only after your pet has been treated with veterinary prescribed anti-parasite medications.
  • Follow your veterinarian’s guidelines on vaccinations for rabies and leptospirosis.
  • Feed your pet cooked (over 160°F) meats, grains, and legumes (beans, etc.) instead of raw foods. Fruits and vegetables should be appropriately washed before they are consumed by people or pets.
  • Frequently wash your hands with soap and water, especially after touching your pet.
  • Avoid close contact with other people and pets when you are sick.



Dr. Patrick Mahaney



Image: JPagetRFphotos  / Shutterstock


Last reviewed on July 31, 2015


Comments  8

Leave Comment
  • Sick
    04/24/2012 11:31am

    It sounds as if the most important things for cat people is hand-washing, especially after scooping/cleaning litter boxes, and keeping Fluffy indoors. While that doesn't cover everything, it's a good start.

  • 04/26/2012 07:44am

    Yes! Wash, wash, and wash some more (especially after handling the popper scooper or touching anything in/around the litter box).
    I much prefer the use of plain soap and water over an antiseptic gel (yet, I'll use it in a pinch if not soap/water is available).
    Thank you for your comments.
    Dr PM

  • camplyobacter??
    04/30/2012 01:43am

    Space constraints probably kept you from listing everything. My dog got a camplyobacter infection from a squirrel he ate. His vet cautioned me to be very careful with my family's hygiene so that we didn't transfer the infection between dog and humans.

    (I got cat scratch fever from a monkey. Who knew?)

  • 04/30/2012 05:49am

    Thank you for your comments.
    Yes, there were too many to list on one blog, so thank you for brining up Camphylobacter. It's quite the nasty bug causing various degree of digestive upset for humans and pets.
    Interesting (from a clinical perspective) that you caught Cat Scratch Fever (Bardonella sp) from a Monkey. I guess anything that scratches or bites you can transmit a variety of illnesses. I hope that you have fully recovered.
    I appreciate your readership and hope to see you back on my Daily Vet blog again!
    Feel free to connect to me through my website:

    Twitter @PatrickMahaney

  • 04/30/2012 06:28am

    I, for one, think that it's MY business and my choice to be opposed to people feeding their dogs raw meat and then bringing them to public places. EVEN if they pick up after their pets, there are many more pathogens left behind in the raw fed dog's fecal matter than a dog's who consumes cooked meat.

    If people want to feed their dogs raw meat, then that's fine but I don't think that my dogs, other people and I should be at risk for zoonotic diseases because of their choices.


  • 05/01/2012 03:37pm

    Thank you for your comments.
    Yes, it is your right to have a personal belief about what constitutes safe feeding for your pet.
    Thank you for bringing up the JAVMA article, which has much useful information.
    You also have to consider the many occasions where commercially available dry and canned dog and cat foods are recalled due to contamination with an infectious organism. Susan Thixton's The Truth About Pet Food (www.TruthAboutPetFood.com) well documents the recalls. See:
    In these cases, the contamination occurs after the food is cooked, possibly during the canning or packaging process.
    SO, really ANY food has potential for contamination.
    I recommend my patients eat a cooked food diet (over raw) which is human grade, like Lucky Dog Cuisine (www.LuckyDogCuisine.com), the Honest Kitchen, Fussie Cat, or a home prepared diet based on the guidelines of the UC Davis Nutritional Support Services.
    I hope to hear from you again on my The Daily Vet page.
    Dr PM
    Twitter @PatrickMahaney

  • 05/02/2012 05:18am

    While that's true that even cooked food, including commercial diets, can carry pathogens due to being reinfected or improperly cooked, it's a lot less likely to than raw meat does. That's why we cook it, after all.

    Cooked diets are fantastic as long as they're sound and balanced. From my experience, most pet owners don't confer with a specialist and their diets often aren't complete.

  • 05/04/2012 06:24am

    Yes, we both concur that cooked diets are the way to go from the best option of safety for both the pet and owner.
    Not all components of a diet have to be cooked, as snacks of reasonable amounts of clean raw fruit (no grapes, raisins, and dried fruits---in general, due to high sugar and often contain sulfur dioxide based preservatives) and vegetables prepared as though you would eat them yourself are excellent choices.
    Thanks for you ongoing input!
    Dr PM

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