No one wants to think of their sweet pet causing them harm—but COVID-19 raised many questions about the illnesses that domestic pets can transmit to humans. Sadly, amid the initial panic, some owners surrendered or abandoned their pets out of fear and misunderstanding. 

While Lebanon Animal Hospital wants to reassure you that a healthy person getting sick from a pet is extremely unlikely—and never a reason to abandon your pet —disease transmission from pets to people is a public health concern. Protect your family and your pet by being informed of potential risks.

Pets and COVID-19

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, there is no evidence that a pet infected with COVID-19 can spread the virus to humans. While in a laboratory setting cats have appeared more susceptible to contracting the virus, although they rarely showed clinical signs, no proof exists that the virus can be spread by pets of any species to humans, or that a coronavirus variant threatens the general pet population.

Pets and zoonotic diseases

“Zoonotic disease” is the medical term for an illness or infection that can be passed from animals to people. Zoonotic diseases (i.e., zoonoses) take many forms that can be classified as viral, bacterial, protozoal, or fungal, and include internal and external parasites. A domestic pet can infect a human in three ways:

  • Direct transmission — Handling an infected animal’s bodily fluids, such as saliva, urine, feces, or blood, can allow disease transmission, as well as personal injury, such as bites and scratches.
  • Indirect — Contact with an infected pet’s environment, such as contaminated housing, bedding, or objects such as toys, leashes, and bowls, can allow indirect transmission. 
  • Vector-borne — An external parasite, such as a flea or tick, can transmit disease when they bite. 

Many zoonotic diseases manifest as only minor medical issues, ranging from intestinal illness (e.g., salmonella, or parasitic diseases) or skin irritation (e.g., ringworm, or bartonella). More serious pathogens, including Lyme disease and Yersinia pestis (i.e., the plague), also exist, and can cause fetal abnormalities (e.g., toxoplasma) or fatality (e.g., rabies virus). Regardless of outcome, all zoonotic diseases should be regarded with caution to minimize risk.

Who is at risk for getting sick from their pet?

For the healthy human and pet population, zoonotic disease risk is relatively low. The chances of infection are higher for people who work with animals, have weakened, undeveloped, or compromised immune systems, or are debilitated, and elderly adults and children. Disease may also present atypically in this population, making diagnosis difficult and time-consuming. 

Zoonotic disease prevention

While zoonotic disease prevention requires education and vigilance, the precautions are relatively simple. Here are five ways to minimize and prevent zoonotic threats.

  • Regular veterinary care — The cornerstone of zoonotic disease prevention is consistent veterinary care, including regular physical examinations, vaccinations, and fecal and heartworm screenings. An examination includes an assessment of your pet’s risk factors, detection of early infection, and treatment or prevention recommendations.
  • Pet protection with year-round heartworm, flea, and tick preventives The Companion Animal Parasite Council guidelines for parasite prevention recommend that all pets be on a year-round broad spectrum parasite control plan. Many heartworm preventives include a deworming medication that protects your pet from zoonotic intestinal parasites, like roundworms and hookworms. Flea and tick medications kill external parasites, breaking the life cycle, and preventing tick-borne transmission of Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and flea-borne bartonella, tapeworms, and plague. Ask your veterinarian about the best safe, effective products for your pet. 
  • Clean-up duty — Prompt, appropriate removal of pet waste is one of the best ways to prevent zoonotic intestinal parasites such as hookworms and roundworms. Fresh pet waste is not always infectious, so clean up after your pet as soon as possible. Juvenile parasites and eggs reach an infective stage over days or weeks, entering the soil or sand. Once the environment is infected, parasites are more difficult to eradicate, and the risk for human infection increases. If you see your pet stoop, it’s time to scoop. 
  • Practice proper hygiene — Wash your hands after interacting with pets, especially birds and reptiles, who commonly carry Salmonella. Avoid touching your eyes or mouth when caring for pets, and do not let pets lick your face. Keep human food and drinks away from pets, to prevent potential contamination. Also, regularly clean and disinfect your pet’s environment, including bedding, litter box, housing, toys, and bowls, to minimize indirect transmission. Pregnant women should take extra precaution when cleaning up after pets, and should reassign litter box duty to another family member to protect their baby.
  • Regular grooming  No matter your pet species, grooming is an important part of their health. Pets who maintain their own grooming still benefit from a close skin inspection, to ensure they have no signs of parasites, sores, or irritation. Consistent grooming also benefits your pet’s skin and coat, and helps with early parasite detection. 

If you have concerns about your own health or disease risk, consult your physician. But, if you have specific questions about your pet’s health and the likelihood they will spread disease to you and your family, call Lebanon Animal Hospital. We can help allay your fears.