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Diseases From Animals: A Primer

A is for animals, Z is for zoonoses.

Diseases From Cats and Dogs continued...

Ringworm isn't a parasite, but a fungal infection that forms a ring-shaped rash on the skin or a bald patch on the scalp. People can get it from direct contact with an infected animal.

Cats and dogs get viruses, too. Rabies is the most dangerous one. Be sure to keep up with your pet's rabies vaccination.

To protect yourself from diseases carried by house pets:

  • Wash your hands with soap and running water after touching feces.
  • Take your pet to the vet on a regular basis and keep up with all vaccinations recommended for your area.
  • Avoid rough play with cats.
  • If your cat or dog bites you, wash the area with soap and water right away.
  • Wash your hands after handling your pet -- especially before eating or preparing food.
  • People with weakened immune systems should take special precautions. These include never letting pets lick them on the face or on an open cut or wound, never touching animal feces, and never handling an animal that has diarrhea.
  • Don't let your pet drink from toilet bowls or eat feces.

Other Pets, Other Diseases

We humans have other friends besides cats and dogs. And with these other friends come other diseases:

  • Birds. Pet birds, including parrots and parakeets, can spread psittacosis. It's a relatively rare disease, with about 50 U.S. cases each year. Symptoms include fever, chills, headache, muscle aches, and a dry cough. There's often pneumonia, which can be quite serious and even fatal. Untreated infections can lead to serious heart, liver, and nerve problems.

  • Reptiles and amphibians. Snakes, turtles, lizards, frogs, toads, and salamanders -- like other animals -- can carry Salmonella bacteria. Wash your hands after handling them. Keep them in their habitat; don't let them wander your room. Keep reptiles and their equipment away from the kitchen. Don't clean reptile cages in sinks or tubs used by people. Don't kiss your reptile -- it won't like it, anyway. And keep reptiles and amphibians away from children younger than 1 and people with weakened immune systems.

  • Exotic animals. Yes, some people make pets of animals like African pygmy hedgehogs. These tiny, antisocial animals that roll up into spiky balls were a fad not too long ago. And they came with salmonella. More recently, pet Gambian giant rats brought monkeypox into the U.S. Similar to smallpox -- but fortunately milder and not as contagious -- monkeypox lurks in small mammals in the African rainforest.

George A. Pankey, MD, director of infectious disease research at New Orleans' Ochsner Clinic Foundation, thinks the trend toward exotic animals has gone too far. He points out that we've evolved along with more common domestic animals, so that they carry relatively few diseases we can't handle. Who knows what bizarre disease might lurk in the next fad pet?

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