Steps to Protect Yourself from Animal Diseases

Published: March 10, 2014
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Have you heard about the tragic case of the 10-year-old boy from San Diego who died from an infection that he allegedly caught from his new pet rat? The disease is called rat bite fever.

Despite its name, bites aren’t the only way transmission can occur. According to the Centers for Disease Control, people most commonly contract rat bite fever through:

  • Bites or scratches from infected rodents (such as rats, mice, and gerbils)
  • Handling rodents with the disease (even without a bite or scratch)
  • Consuming food or drink contaminated with the bacteria

Rat bite fever is a zoonosis — a disease that can be transmitted from animals to people. According to the World Health Organization, over 200 zoonotic diseases have been identified. In fact, most infectious diseases that affect people got their start as animal diseases. And before all you owners of “traditional” pets think this topic only applies to people who choose to live with “weird” animals, dogs and cats can be carriers of around 30 zoonotic diseases.

Zoonotic diseases are generally spread from animals to people by one of three routes:

  • Aerosol exposure — contact with oral, nasal, or ocular secretions containing the microorganisms through the air or contaminated surfaces via coughing, sneezing, touching the eyes, etc.
  • Digestive tract exposure — organisms enter the person’s body through the mouth. Microscopic eggs, cysts, viruses, or bacteria are often shed in the feces of infected animals.
  • Skin exposure — other infections are acquired through bites, scratches, insects that transmit diseases, or contact with organisms shed from an infected animal’s skin.

Disease transmission may be directly from animal to person or via fomites (contaminated objects).

Protecting yourself and your loved ones from zoonotic diseases is in large part a matter of common sense, but I know I’m guilty of letting things slide more often than I should and I suspect this is true for most people who share their lives with animals. To review:

  • Wash hands after handling animals or their bedding, bowls, litter boxes, etc. Always wash hands before eating.
  • Wear gloves when cleaning litter boxes, scooping poop, cleaning wounds, or performing other obviously “dirty” jobs.
  • Do not feed undercooked or raw meats to pets. If you must, thoroughly wash your hands and disinfect all surfaces that come in contact with raw meats after every exposure.
  • Promptly wash any wounds, especially those inflicted by animals, with soap and water. Seek prompt medical attention for wounds and illnesses.
  • Stay up to date on preventative care for pets. Vaccination, deworming, and flea and tick control can help prevent many zoonotic diseases


Immunosuppressed people, including those who have HIV/AIDS, are on chemotherapy, have had bone marrow or stem cell transplants, or splenectomies, and the very young or old are at higher than average risk for zoonotic diseases. Consult with a doctor before having contact with animals if you or a family member falls into one of these categories.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: BrantLeeMedia / Shutterstock