By Gary A. Borgman, DVM
We are often asked by parents if their children can get any diseases from household pets. Yes children and immune-suppressed individuals of all ages can acquire parasites from household pets but awareness and appropriate preventive measures can minimize or eliminate most risks.
My first three years as a veterinarian was entirely devoted to the practice of public health duties with the United States Air Force at a base hospital. My responsibilities included all aspects of food safety and sanitation, training of food handlers, and operation of a zoonosis control clinic.
A zoonotic disease is defined as a disease or condition which humans can acquire from animals. Rabies is the most extreme example. Fortunately, rabies is a preventable disease for dogs and cats. Properly vaccinated household pets pose no danger of transmission to humans because they are protected from the virus, even if exposed to an infected animal. The scary thing about rabies is that it is an untreatable and fatal disease. When humans are exposed to known or suspected rabid animals, the victims must be give a series of inoculations to build immunity to the virus before it reaches the central nervous system. High risk individuals such as veterinarians, veterinary technicians, and animal control officers are usually vaccinated against rabies. The best protection against rabies for humans is avoidance of direct contact with wildlife and strays and to maintain current vaccinations of their dogs and cats.
Another less known but serious health threat from animals is hookworm or roundworm infection. These intestinal parasites are common in many young puppies and kittens because the mother transfers these parasites to their unborn in the uterus and even through the first milk through nursing. Hookworms are small and never seen. They attach to the lining of the small intestines and produce microscopic eggs which are passed in the feces. When these eggs hatch, the free living larvae in moist soil can penetrate the skin of barefooted humans and result in “creeping eruption”. The larvae also can enter pet bodies through their skin and result in reinfection.
Roundworms, however pose a more serious threat to human health. Adult roundworms also live in the small intestines of dogs and cats and produce microscopic eggs which eventually mature to infective eggs in the soil. These eggs can be ingested by children or adults who do not wash their hands after contact with contaminated soil before eating. After ingestion, these larvae then penetrate the lining of the small intestines and become “visceral larval migrans” which can enter vital organs including the liver, spine and eyes with resulting loss of vision. The best way to prevent intestinal parasites from becoming human health threats is to keep our pets worm-free with regular laboratory tests and appropriate treatments. Several of the available heartworm preventative medications for dogs and cats effectively control hookworms and roundworms.
The veterinarians and staff of Kissimmee Animal Hospital (407-846-3912) and Poinciana Pet Clinic (407-518-0880) are available to answer your questions about zoonotic diseases and any other pet health questions. We are here to help and to serve.