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Healthy pets, healthy people: How to avoid the diseases that pets can spread to people

Pets are good for people. They provide joy, can help improve our health, and help teach children values and social skills. But some pets can carry diseases or may be dangerous for young children.

A zoonose is a disease that you can get from animals, especially when you have close contact with them.

Like people, all animals carry germs. In Canada, your chances of getting a disease from an animal are small. It’s still a good idea to know what to look for in your pet and how to avoid getting sick from an animal.

How can we prevent diseases from spreading from pets to people?

Several factors affect whether a disease will spread from an animal to a human.

Pet health care: The best way to avoid catching a disease from your pet is to make sure your pet is healthy.

  • Get your pet from a source you trust (talk to a veterinarian for suggestions).
  • Make sure your pet sees the vet regularly and has all necessary vaccinations.
  • Keep a close watch on your pet’s contact with other animals that might carry disease.

Handwashing: Make sure you and all family members wash their hands after handling pets. Clean up carefully after your pets. Wash your hands after cleaning litter boxes, cages, or disposing of pet waste.

When my dog sneezes will I catch a cold?

People don’t catch colds or the flu from most pets. Here are some diseases that DO NOT normally spread from pets to people:

  • cat leukemia;
  • cat immunodeficiency (sometimes called feline AIDS);
  • distemper;
  • hantavirus;
  • heartworms;
  • parvovirus;
  • pinworms;
  • systemic fungal infections;
  • Lyme disease;
  • influenza, colds, sore throats.

What about bites and scratches?

  • Most diseases spread from pets to people through biting, scratching or direct contact. The first step to prevent injuries is to train your dog or cat not to bite. Never leave a young child alone with an animal.
  • When a pet scratches you, clean it right away with soap and water. You probably won’t need more treatment if your immune system is working normally.
  • Cat bites are usually thin and deep and may not look very serious. But germs from the cat’s mouth can get into your skin and cause infection. See your doctor, because you may need antibiotics. If after seeing your doctor, you show signs of infection such as redness, swelling, warmth, oozing of pus or fever, contact your doctor again.
  • Dog bites may look worse, but they’re usually less serious. Dog bites don’t need antibiotics as often. Contact your doctor.
  • When a bite breaks the skin, call your local public health unit or doctor if ANY of the following applies:
    • the animal is not yours,
    • the bite is on the head or neck,
    • the wound is serious,
    • you or your child didn’t do anything that might cause the animal to bite,
    • the animal is not acting normally, or
    • the animal seems sick.
  • If an animal bites for no obvious reason, it may be a sign that it has rabies. Rabies is not common, but when an animal has it, it is always fatal. That’s why health officials (public health and your doctor) will make sure that the biting incident is investigated. The animal must be examined and the person who was bitten will get preventive treatment if needed.
  • You should talk to a doctor or someone from your local public health office if you or your child is bitten by a wild or farm animal or if you or your child has had any contact with a bat. They will investigate and advise whether preventive treatment for rabies is necessary.

What are the most common diseases that spread from animals to people?

Germs can also spread from animals if people come in contact with urine, feces or sores on the pet. They can also be spread through the air by coughs or sneezes, although this is less common. The chart below describes those type of infections.

You may want to pay special attention to the diseases that are carried by the kind of animal you have, or are thinking of getting.

Which pets can carry infection? Name of infection How does infection pass from pets to people? What happens if I get it? Tips for prevention
  • Cats and dogs can also carry, and transmit Salmonella (see Reptiles)
  • Campylobacter – most common bacterial cause of gastroenteritis worldwide.
  • Human infections are usually caused not by pets, but by eating contaminated raw or undercooked meat, or by drinking unpasteurized milk. Organism lives in the intestinal tract of healthy farm animals, poultry, wild birds and animals.
  • Infections are common in young animals, especially puppies and kittens. They can get it from eating undercooked poultry or contaminated animal products, or by drinking water containing fecal matter.
  • Close contact between owners and dog and cat fur
  • Diarrhea that can be bloody, severe stomach cramps, and sometimes a high fever. See a doctor
  • People with this infection can become very sick.
  • Campylobacter infection is a known trigger for Guillain-Barré syndrome.
  • Wash hands thoroughly after contact with animals, and animal waste (feces).
  • Puppies or kittens with diarrhea should be seen by a vet for proper treatment.
  • Practice careful hand hygiene and food handling, especially around raw poultry. Cook all meats thoroughly.
  • Drink pasteurized milk and water only from trusted sources.
  • “Cat scratch disease” – bacteria (Bartonella) causing skin infections
  • Cats, especially kittens, carry the germ under their claws and in saliva. (Cats get their infection from fleas.)
  • Because cat claws are thin and sharp, their scratches can inject bacteria under the skin.
  • Infection can also be spread by saliva in a bite that breaks the skin.
  • Dogs also carry, and can spread, “cat scratch disease”
  • A common skin infection, mostly affecting children, young adults, sometimes with gland swelling and/or fever.
  • Serious complications are rare.
  • Make sure your cat does not have fleas.
  • Teach your cat not to scratch and your children not to play roughly with pets. Never leave a young child alone with a pet.
  • Clean scratched skin thoroughly with soap and water.
  • See a doctor if scratched skin becomes red and inflamed, or if you develop swollen glands.
  Cryptosporidium – parasite that causes a highly contagious intestinal disease
  • Many mammals (including humans), birds, and reptiles shed the germs (called oocysts) in their feces that cause human infection. These oocysts are resistant to treatment (eg., to chlorine in drinking water).
  • Contaminated water supplies and swimming pools can cause extensive water-borne outbreaks, and so-called “traveller’s diarrhea.”
  • Cattle, dogs and cats, guinea pigs, mice, and animals in petting zoos (eg., deer, llamas, alpacas) can pass infection to humans.
  • Person-to-person and foodborne transmission (eg., in child care and institutional settings) also happen.
  • Frequent, non-bloody, watery diarrhea. Vomiting and fever are more common symptoms in children.
  • Can be severe, even fatal, for people with a severely weakened immune system.
  • Wash your hands, and make sure children wash hands, after contact with animals.
  • Be sure your water supply is safe to drink. Boil water for at least one minute if you are in doubt.
  • People with diarrhea should not use recreations swimming facilities (pools or lakes).
  • Giardia – a parasite that makes people sick by causing) bowel infection.
  • Lives in the intestinal tract of many wild and domestic animals (eg., beavers, muskrats, seals, cattle, goats, lamas and pigs) without causing symptoms
  • Humans are usually infected by drinking untreated water, or by person-to-person transmission (eg., in child care settings), but the feces of infected dogs and cats can also contaminate water supply.
  • Even healthy dogs and cats may carry it, though diarrhea is especially common in puppies.
*Watery diarrhea and severe stomach cramps are common symptoms.
  • Can be severe for people with a weakened immune system, and can cause epidemics.
  • Wash your hands, and make sure children wash hands, after contact with farm animals and pets.
  • Pets with diarrhea should be seen by a vet for proper treatment.
  • Make sure your water supply is safe to drink.
  • People with diarrhea should not use recreations swimming facilities (pools or lakes).
  Rabies –a virus that attacks the brain.
  • In Canada, rabies is most often in foxes, skunks, bats and raccoons. Pets can get rabies from saliva, if a wild animal bites them.
  • Humans get rabies from the bite of an infected animal (usually a dog). In Canada, house pets are protected by a vaccine against rabies, and almost never get the disease.
  • Immunization can be given after a bite, and a doctor decides whether vaccine is needed.
  • Rabies is not common, but when an animal get is, it is always fatal.
  • Vaccinate your pets against rabies. Don’t handle wild animals.
  • A bite from an animal that is acting strangely, a stray pet, or a wild animal or any contact with a bat must be seen by a doctor and reported to a local public health authority.
  Ringworm (Dermaphytosis) – different kinds of fungus that can cause rash
  • Farm animals, pets and wild animals can carry fungal spores on their skin or hair.
  • Cats and dogs (especially kittens and puppies) are common carriers, and may have no symptoms of infection, especially in households with several pets or shelters.
  • Touching or petting an animal can pass infection to humans.
  • Ringworm causes an itchy rash on the skin or scalp.
  • Usually affects children.
  • See your doctor if you suspect your child has it.
  • Wash your hands and make sure children wash hands after contact with pets.
  • Avoid touching animals with bald spots.
  • Pets with a skin rash should be seen by a vet for proper treatment
  • Roundworms (Toxocariasis or larvae migrans) – parasites that can infect the intestine or eyes
  • Roundworms are common in dogs and cats (especially in puppies and kittens), and their eggs are present in soil wherever dogs and cats defecate.
  • Roundworms infect humans if eggs are ingested (eg., by a young child eating dirt or sand, or by eating raw, unwashed vegetables).
  • Most people have no symptoms.
  • In serious cases, roundworms can travel around the body and cause damage to organs, including the eyes.
  • Clean up pet waste promptly.
  • Stop a child from eating dirt or sand.
  • Wash hands after handling soil and before eating.
  • Cover your children’s sandbox between uses.
  • Ask a vet to treat your dog or cat (especially a young animal) regularly for worms.
  • Toxoplasmosis – is caused by a parasite
  • Most humans are infected by eating raw or undercooked meat—only rarely by accidentally ingesting sand or soil contaminated by cat feces.
  • Most warm-blooded animals carry this parasite, but only cats shed the germs (called oocysts) in their feces that cause human infection.
  • Cats usually get it by eating infected rodents or undercooked household meats.
  • Fever, feeling generally unwellor swollen glands.
  • First infection during pregnancy can cause birth defects, developmental problems, or miscarriage.
  • In people with a seriously weakened immune system, infection can lead to potentially life-threatening brain infections.
  • Feed your cat commercial cat food—not raw meat scraps.
  • Clean your cat’s litter box daily—new feces do not contain live parasite.
  • If you are pregnant, avoid activities that might expose you to cat feces (eg., changing a litter box). Wear gloves and wash hands carefully if you must do these chores.
  • Wash your hands, and make sure children wash hands after gardening, playing in the sandbox or cleaning out the cat’s litter box.
  • Keep your sandbox covered between uses.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly, don’t eat meat that is raw or undercooked, and wash hands after handling raw meat.
Birds can also carry, and transmit, Campylobacter, Giardia, ringworm (see Cats and Dogs, above), Salmonella (see Reptiles, below) Psittacosis (Chlamydophila or parrot fever) – bacteria that can cause pneumonia Breathing in fecal dust or by contact with droppings, or eye, beak secretions of birds: wild (eg., pigeons), tame (eg., parakeets, love birds, macaws and parrots) and poultry (eg., turkeys).
  • Respiratory symptoms, fever, headache. Serious complications are rare.
  • Infections in children are rare.
  • Don’t expose your pet bird to other birds.
  • Keep the bird cage clean, avoid scattering debris.
  • Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water after handling a bird, bird nest or cage.
  • Don’t kiss pet birds.
  • Buy birds from reliable sources.
Ferrets can carry and transmit rabies, Campylobacter, ringworm, and Salmonella
Rabbits can carry, and transmit, rabies, ringworm, and Salmonella
Rodents can also carry, and transmit Campylobacter, Giardia, rabies, ringworm, Salmonella Hantavirus – virus common in rodents (eg., deer mice, white-footed mice) that can attack the lungs. * Contact with infected rodents, their droppings or nests, or breathing in virus particles from rodent urine, droppings or saliva.
  • (A dog or cat cannot spread hantavirus from a rodent to a person.)
  • Flu-like symptoms including headache, muscle pain, fever, followed by shortness of breath and other serious symptoms.
  • Can be fatal.
  • Infections may be milder in children.
  • Prevent rodent infestations in your home. Disinfect traps between uses.
  • Don’t use a broom or vacuum to clean infested areas. Ventilate (allow fresh air in) before cleaning, soak droppings with disinfectant first, and wear rubber gloves and a protective face mask.
  • Avoid camping, sleeping in places infested by rodents. Don’t live-trap wild mice or keep them as pets.
Reptiles and amphibians can also carry, and transmit, Cryptosporidum and Giardia
  • Salmonella – A bacteria that causes intestinal infections, and a common cause of food poisoning.
  • Salmonella bacteria are everywhere in the environment and live in the intestinal tract of healthy poultry, livestock, reptiles and pets.
  • Most human infections are not caused by direct contact with animals but from contaminated food or water.
  • Aquatic reptiles, such as turtles, carry and transmit salmonella. Risk of infection from “dry land” snakes, lizards may be lower.
  • Cats and dogs usually don’t get sick, but they can still infect humans by licking.
  • Certain pet treats, such as pigs’ ear chews, may be contaminated and can infect humans.
  • Infection can cause severe diarrhea, fever, headache, stomach cramps and vomiting. In infants, the elderly, or in people with a weakened immune system, it can be fatal.
  • Most cases in children 1 to 4 years of age.
  • Can cause widespread outbreaks.
  • Clean your pet’s cage and living area often and thoroughly with a hose or in an outdoor sink. Disinfect carpets or furnishings when feces are present.
  • Avoid keeping reptiles as pets.
  • Wash your hands well with soap and water after handling pets, pet chews, coming into contact with pet waste, and cleaning a birdfeeder.
*Eggs and all meats should be thoroughly cooked before eating.


Reviewed by the following CPS committees:
Infectious Diseases and Immunization Committee

Last Updated: November 2010