They come from giant Gambian rats and fuzzy bunnies. They come from puppies and pythons. Whether the animal is friend or food or foe, it can carry dangerous diseases.
There are at least 39 important diseases people catch directly from animals. There are at least 48 important diseases people get from the bite of bugs that bit an infected animal. And there are at least 42 important diseases that people get by ingesting or handling food or water contaminated with animal feces.
In Nora Ephron's best-selling book, I Feel Bad About My Neck, she laments the sorry state of her 60-something neck: "Our faces are lies and our necks are the truth. You have to cut open a redwood tree to see how old it is, but you wouldn't have to if it had a neck," she writes.
"Every so often I read a book about age, and whoever's writing it says it's great to be old. It's great to be wise and sage and mellow; it's great to be at the point where you understand just what matters in life. I can't...
People have lived with animals for eons. There's a reason for that. They don't just make us feel better. They actually contribute to our health. People who keep pets tend to have lower cholesterol levels and lower blood pressure. They tend to get more exercise and to feel less lonely.
On the other hand, pets and other animals can get sick. And some of these illnesses can be quite dangerous. This article offers an overview of these diseases -- and how to avoid them.
Why Animal-Borne Diseases Matter
Diseases passed to humans from animals are called zoonoses. What makes one of these diseases important? Two things, says zoonosis expert Lawrence T. Glickman, VMD, DrPH, professor of veterinary epidemiology and environmental health at Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine, West Lafayette, Ind.
"If you ask Americans in general what is the most important zoonosis, most would say rabies," Glickman tells WebMD. "It is something they fear, it is in the news. But in terms of risk, there are only zero to two human cases a year in the U.S. It's one of those zoonoses that are important because of their seriousness, but not their frequency: rabies, tularemia, plague, monkeypox, listeria, anthrax. These are diseases that are very serious if one gets them but which are relatively uncommon."
On the flip side, Glickman notes, are animal-borne diseases that are important because they are fairly common even if not often fatal. Cat-scratch fever, for example, infects as many as 20,000 Americans a year. And an estimated 4%-20% of U.S. kids get roundworm from dogs and cats.
"Even these diseases can be quite serious," Glickman says. Here's a roundup of a few important zoonoses: