Did you know that you can actually catch a few nasty diseases from your beloved Spot, Benji, or Lassie?
America is, without a doubt, a nation of animal lovers. Over the past 30 years alone, pet ownership among US households has steadily risen from 56% to 68%—equivalent to about 85 million homes. And man’s best friend is leading the charge. In 2018, approximately 90 million dogs lived in US homes as pets, a jump from nearly 78 million in 2016, according to surveys conducted by the American Pet Products Association.
Pets can enrich our lives by not only offering comfort and companionship, but also by promoting an active, healthy lifestyle—both physical and social—and better mental well-being. It should come as no surprise, then, that 60% of dog owners regard their pets as children or family members. In fact, roughly half of all dog owners allow their fur-babies to sleep with them in bed at night. Although this is not a new phenomenon and some researchers have demonstrated the sleep benefits of sharing the bed with your pooch, especially among women, there is the very real risk of transmission of disease to consider.
Zoonoses—diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans—may be bacterial, viral, or parasitic in etiology. In addition to direct contact, other ways that humans can become infected with zoonotic diseases include contact with infected saliva, aerosol-mediated transmission, and exposure to contaminated urine and feces.
Perhaps the most well-known zoonotic disease among the general population is rabies, a lethal virus popularized both in film and in literature. However, there are some other zoonoses that you may not be aware of that you can catch from your beloved canine companion.
Let’s take a closer look at some of these diseases and infections that can oftentimes be deadly.
Capnocytophaga canimorsus is a type of bacteria commonly found in the mouths of healthy cats and dogs. In some studies, C. canimorsus was detected in nearly 75% of dogs. Humans, however, can contract this bacteria type through exposure to dog saliva, most commonly through a dog bite or licking, and immunocompromised individuals are at greater risk of manifesting opportunistic infection. Other individuals who may be at higher risk for infection include asplenic individuals, people aged ≥ 40 years, and alcoholics, according to the CDC.
If it’s not caught early on and treated with antibiotics, C. canimorsus infection can manifest quickly and result in fatal complications, including septicemia and death. In 2018, for example, a man became infected with C. canimorsus following exposure from a dog lick, and had to have his legs and hands amputated after developing life-threatening sepsis. If you have been bitten by a dog, the CDC recommends washing the bite area immediately with soap and water to mitigate the risk of zoonosis.
No. 1 cause of human bacterial gastroenteritis
Campylobacterosis is a bacterial intestinal infection that is usually caused by Campylobacter jejuni and Campylobacter upsaliensis. It is the most common and significant source of bacterial gastroenteritis in humans, and affects 1.3 million Americans each year. Dog owners can become infected via contact with contaminated feces.
Some infected dogs may not exhibit any signs or symptoms of illness; others may have diarrhea or slight fever. Infected humans, on the other hand, will likely present with diarrhea (often bloody), abdominal cramps and pain, nausea, and fever within 2-5 days of exposure.
Symptoms in humans usually last about a week and tend to resolve on their own. Although there is no specific treatment for campylobacterosis, patients are advised to drink extra fluids for the duration of diarrhea. Antibiotic treatment may be necessary for immunocompromised individuals and infants.
Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)
Staphylococcus aureus is a common bacterium that can be found on the skin of people and animals. Usually, it causes no problems; however, it can be an opportunistic pathogen, with the ability to cause serious infections and complications in humans. Dogs often carry MRSA without being sick or demonstrating any symptoms of illness.
Transmitted through direct contact, MRSA can cause mild to severe skin infections in humans, as well as infections of the respiratory and urinary tracts. Left untreated, MRSA can lead to fatal complications, including septicemia, pneumonia, and even death. While typical antibiotics won’t treat MRSA due to its resistant nature, other hospital-grade antibiotic agents (ie, trimethoprim, sulfamethoxazole, and clindamycin) usually can.
Most people associate salmonella with poultry and eggs; however, salmonellosis can also be spread from dogs to humans. Dry dog food, treats, and chew toys can all be reservoirs for contamination and infection. While your pooch may not get sick upon infection, salmonella can cause severe illness in humans.
Usually spread via the fecal-oral route, salmonellosis can also develop due to direct animal contact. The incubation period is about 12-72 hours following infection, and illness can last anywhere from 4 to 7 days. Symptoms include severe diarrhea, vomiting, fever, and abdominal cramping. Like campylobacterosis, salmonellosis is self-limited and usually does not require specific treatment. Patients with severe diarrhea are advised to rehydrate often with extra fluids.
Caused by microscopic, burrowing, parasitic mites, sarcoptic mange—or scabies—is a highly contagious zoonosis. In dogs, symptoms can include severe itching, self-inflicted wounds from scratching, hair loss, bald spots, scabbing, and sores.
Humans can contract these mites via prolonged contact with infected dogs, through co-sleeping with them or coming in contact with contaminated bedding. Infected humans usually present with severe itching, rash, and red bumps—similar to those of a mosquito bite. Currently, there are no over-the-counter products approved to treat this disease. Rather, prescription scabicides are required for decontamination and treatment.
According to the CDC, “Bedding, clothing, and towels used by infested persons or their household, sexual, and close contacts...anytime during the 3 days before treatment should be decontaminated by washing in hot water and drying in a hot dryer, by dry-cleaning, or by sealing in a plastic bag for at least 72 hours. Scabies mites generally do not survive more than 2 to 3 days away from human skin.”
Of note, humans cannot get demodectic mange from dogs.
How can you reduce your risk of zoonotic disease?
The best ways to reduce, if not eliminate, your risk of contracting and spreading zoonotic disease boils down to simple hygiene practices and common sense.
- Do not allow your dog’s saliva to come into contact with any open wounds, fresh cuts, or sores. Although dog saliva is slightly bactericidal against some bacterial strains, the risks for other types of infection far outweigh any potential benefits, notes the American Kennel Club.
- If you are severely ill, avoid prolonged contact with your dog to minimize your risk of opportunistic pathogen infection, which can develop in the immunocompromised.
- To best avoid dog bites, don’t encourage your dog to play aggressively, and always ask if it is OK to pet someone else’s dog before reaching out. Aside from the obvious risk of infection, the CDC reports that nearly 1 in 5 of all dog-bite attacks require medical attention. If you are bitten, be sure to get to a safe place, immediately clean the wound with soap and water, and seek medical attention. Read the full list of preventative measures from the CDC.
- If your dog is sick, make sure to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water after handling.
- If your dog likes to romp around in the yard and gets dirty frequently, try to keep up with regular grooming. All dogs benefit from routine baths, as well as regular brushing to remove loose hairs, dead skin cells, dirt, debris, and external parasites, according to the VCA.
- De-worm your dog on a regular basis. Giving your dog a monthly broad-spectrum heartworm preventative will not only prevent heartworm, but roundworms and other parasites as well.
- Routinely administer flea and tick control products.
- If you co-sleep with your dog, wash your bedding regularly. On that note—wash your dog’s bedding frequently, too.
- Remember to wear gloves when gardening or doing yard work in areas where dog may have urinated or defecated, and remove dog feces from your yard on a regular basis.
- Do not share food with dogs. For example, don’t let your dog take licks of your ice cream while you’re eating it! It may be cute, but it’s a definite health risk. In addition to the aforementioned zoonoses, you can also contract visceral larva migrans this way. These are canine parasites that can travel to the liver, lungs, and brains in infected humans, and cause seizures, myocarditis, encephalitis, and death in some cases.
Follow these key preventative measures and you shouldn’t have any problems when Fido snuggles up with you.