What diseases can humans get from dogs and cats?

Caring for our beloved pets is a great experience for all the family, but sometimes things can go wrong and a human becomes infected with an animal disease. Fortunately, only very small numbers of pet owners pick up diseases from their pets each year, usually from bites, scratches or contact with their faeces. However, while this is unlikely these can be serious illnesses. It’s important all pet owners are aware of what diseases are out there and how to practice good pet health and hygiene to stop ourselves from becoming infected. That’s why Purely Pets has put together this guide to dog and cat diseases that can infect humans.

Pets play a central role in many of our lives and deserve the very best in care and attention. Ensuring you’ve got the most appropriate pet insurance in place to protect you and your pet is one of the most important parts of pet ownership.

Remember all pets, not just dogs and cats, can carry diseases without having any symptoms themselves.

Potential diseases from our four-legged friends

Although it’s hard to believe, there are some uncommon although very unpleasant illnesses you can catch from dogs and cats in the UK.

Campylobacteriosis

This bacterial infection of the gut is easily transferred from the faeces of infected dogs and cats to their human owners. One of the leading causes of bacterial gastroenteritis, it causes stomach pain, diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting, as well as fever in people. Often no special treatment is needed other than plenty of fluids and rest. But in severe cases antibiotics may need to be prescribed.

However, before you start pointing any fingers, it’s not always your pet to blame. These bacteria are also found in raw meat, undercooked poultry, untreated water and unpasteurised milk. It can be extremely infectious, particularly where there is an infected family member or group of children, so caution is advised.

Salmonellosis

Salmonella bacteria are found in the gut and faeces of pets and humans, as well as in many foods (particularly if they haven’t been cooked or stored properly). The infection can range from mild to severe and symptoms include fever, diarrhoea (which may be bloody), nausea, vomiting and stomach pain. Most people recover between four to seven days after infection and don’t require any special treatment. Just follow the NHS advice for treating food poisoning.

However, children under five, pregnant women, the elderly and those who have weakened immunity are all at higher risk of developing the infection and having severe symptoms. Be particularly careful around these people.

Pasteurellosis

The soft tissue infection pasteurellosis usually develops in humans following dog or cat bites, scratches or licks. A pet doesn’t need to be ill themselves to infect a human, as they can carry the bacteria without showing any symptoms at all. If untreated this can quickly develop into a serious infection, with added complications such as abscesses, septic arthritis and osteomyelitis. It can also lead to meningitis, eye infections, and even respiratory tract infections in those who are already susceptible.

Cat scratch disease (CSD)

CSD is another bacterial infection that can affect human pet owners. The condition is caused by the Bartonella henselae bacteria and is usually caught from cats (often kittens) when they bite or scratch. It can also be spread via saliva if an infected cat licks an open wound or your eyes.

The symptoms of CSD can include bumps or blisters where the bite happened, swollen lymph nodes, tiredness, fever and headaches. Fortunately, CSD is rarely serious and treatment is not usually required. Those most at risk are young children and those with a weakened immune system.

Capnocytophaga canimorsus

With the first case reported only about 30 years ago, this is a recently reported disease in humans. The bacteria that cause this disease has been found in the saliva of healthy dogs and cats. It’s typically caught via dog bites but also licks. While healthy individuals seem to have little problem fighting it off, severe diseases such as septicaemia have been reported by doctors in the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions. These reports make unpleasant reading, but the quicker the bacterial infection is spotted the better the chances of a patient surviving.

Leptospirosis (or Weil’s disease)

While comparatively rare in the UK, leptospirosis is a bacterial infection that can be fatal in dogs and can potentially be passed to their human owners. It can be caught by a human through contact with an infected animal’s urine, particularly through an open wound.

Animal charity PDSA advises that it’s worthwhile vaccinating your dog against leptospirosis. If you’re a pet insurance policy holder then either speak to your vet or give our 24-Hour Vet Helpline a call. All calls are answered by registered veterinary nurses with a minimum of three years of practical experience. They can give information on a whole range of issues.

Giardiasis and cryptosporidiosis

These are both gut diseases caused by parasites passed on by pets. Diarrhoea and stomach pain are the most common symptoms of these infections. Current data suggests that dogs and cats don’t routinely pass them on to healthy people. It’s most commonly seen in young children. People with weak immune system problems (such as through HIV infection, cancer or following organ transplants) are likely to be most severely affected.

Toxoplasmosis

A potentially devastating illness caused by a parasite passed on by contact with a cat's faeces. Careful handling of cat litter will avoid many infections. Often an infected person won’t show any symptoms, but if they do, they’re likely to experience fever, sore throat, sore muscles, tiredness and swollen glands.

Pregnant women, in particular, need to be wary as toxoplasmosis can cause miscarriage, premature births and severe illness and blindness in new-born children. As with any infection, those with a weakened immune system are most at risk of severe complications.

Toxocariasis

The parasitic roundworm Toxacara found more commonly in the intestines of dogs and cats is the cause of this illness. Toxacara produce a large number of eggs that are passed through the animal’s body ending up in their faeces. In turn the eggs end up in soil or sand where humans, particularly children, come into contact with them.

Most people develop no or only mild symptoms including a cough, high temperature, headaches and stomach pain. However, in rare cases other organs such as the liver, lungs, eyes or brain can become infected and cause severe symptoms – such as reduced vision and in some cases blindness. Dogs and cats should be de-wormed regularly as part of responsible pet ownership.

Ringworm

Despite its name, this skin disease is not caused by a worm but rather by a fungus found in the soil and on the skin of infected humans and pets. Children tend to be more susceptible to ringworm infections and it can easily be transmitted through touch. The main symptom of ringworm is a rash that can be scaly, dry, swollen or itchy. Blisters can form and it can affect the feet, groin, scalp and nails or elsewhere on the body.

Treatment is usually with an antifungal cream, gel or spray depending on the rash location. Even if the rash goes away it’s important to follow instructions carefully, as it can easily return.

Who’s most at risk?

While this is quite a worrying list, for the vast majority of owners it’s very unlikely that you’ll catch a disease from your pet. That said, the chances of this happening do increase if you have a compromised immune system due to a pre-existing disease or medical condition. Examples include:

  • People living with HIV or AIDS
  • Pregnant women
  • Cancer patients being treated with chemotherapy or radiation therapy
  • Elderly people
  • People with chronic diseases or congenital immune system deficiency
  • People who have recently received an organ or bone marrow transplant

But that doesn’t mean that such people need to give up their pets. Far from it, you just need to be extra careful. After all, the benefits of pet ownership are immeasurable and some doctors even recommend pets for patients as they help boost both physical and mental wellbeing.

Safely caring for your pet

There are plenty of ways for you and your pet to stay safe and healthy while also enjoying all the cuddles that you’re used to. Simply follow these top 20 tips to help safely care for your pets:

  1. Regularly monitor your pet for signs of illness and act quickly to get them help. Never put off paying a visit to the vet if they seem unwell. That’s why pet insurance is so essential, it protects both your pet and you from harm.
  2. Always wash your hands after touching your pet, particularly if they’re showing signs of sickness.
  3. Keep your pet well groomed. Washing and brushing your pet regularly and generally keeping them clean means you’ll quickly pick up on any warning signs of infection and injury.
  4. Keep your pet's living area clean and free of faeces or urine, particularly if you have more than one pet.
  5. Wash pet bedding regularly.
  6. Give your pets separate water dishes and food bowls.
  7. In your garden, pick up faeces regularly and don't allow children to play in the area where your pet toilets.
  8. When out walking your dog, always pick up faeces and dispose of them safely and promptly.
  9. Avoid direct contact with your pet’s urine or faeces. Make sure you invest in a suitably sized pooper-scooper!
  10. Wear gloves when removing pet faeces or cleaning a litter box. Don’t have children clean up after a pet unless they are supervised or until they know how to do this safely and responsibly (always washing hands afterwards).
  11. Don’t kiss your dog on the mouth because infections can spread through saliva.
  12. Don't share food with your pet.
  13. Cats and dogs should be kept away from food preparation areas, including worktops and chopping boards.
  14. De-worm your pet regularly. Worming treatments prevent several types of parasites that can be harmful to both you and your pet.
  15. Keep your dog on a lead when out walking and avoid strange animals or those that appear sick.
  16. Never bring a wild animal into your home.
  17. Children need to be carefully supervised around pets. Small children are often more likely to catch diseases from their pets. Teach them about the need to avoid being licked, especially on the face.
  18. Keep children’s sandpits well covered when not in use. Animals won’t know the difference between a sandpit and a litterbox!
  19. If a pet bites or scratches you then immediately clean the injured area with soap and water to reduce the risk of infection. If swelling and inflammation occur consider seeking medical help.
  20. Keep on top of flea or tick problems in your pet. Fleas and ticks can carry diseases that may be easily passed to a pet’s owners. Speak to your veterinarian about the most suitable oral and topical medicines.

A note on Coronavirus

With the COVID-19 pandemic still at the forefront of many people's minds it’s no wonder that animal lovers have been worried about whether their beloved pets could catch the virus from us.

The British Veterinary Association says there is limited evidence that some pets can catch coronavirus following very close contact with infected humans. Therefore, they recommend that if you are sick with COVID-19 you should limit your contact with your pets as a precautionary measure.

How insurance can help

If you or your pet do become sick it’s important that you can focus on care rather than bills. Pet insurance is a useful way to protect against unexpected costs. Indeed, paying a regular premium is far easier than having to find cash in an emergency.

Whether you’ve got a dog, cat, or both, make sure you have the protection they deserve by taking out a pet insurance policy through Purely Pets.

The dedicated team at Purely Pets is here to make this a simple and transparent process. If you choose Purely Pets, you’ll benefit from:

  • Award-winning insurance policies
  • Lifetime cover up to £15,000
  • Online policy management

Get a pet insurance quote from Purely Pets today.