Pets can carry many parasites and micro-organisms which can cause disease and some of these can be transmitted to humans (called “zoonotic diseases”), leading to serious illness – particularly in those with weaker immune systems, such as young children.
Therefore, it is important to be aware of the pet diseases that can infect children and to take precautions to prevent infection. Here are some of the more common zoonotic diseases
Also known as ‘tinea’, ringworm is a skin infection that is actually caused by a fungus, not a worm. Kids can pick up ringworm from touching infected dogs, cats, rats, mice and guinea pigs, and also from brushes and clothes that have been in contact with the pet. The usual symptoms are dry, scaly circular areas, often red, swollen and flaky. It can also lead to bald patches, especially on the scalp. Ringworm is easily treated by antifungal medications in the form of oral medicine, creams or shampoos.
Mange is caused by mites found most commonly in the ears, face and extremities of dogs and cats, which burrow into the skin and cause intense red rashes and itching. They can be passed onto humans by direct contact as the mites don’t survive for very long off the host body. In humans, the mites will also burrow into the deep layers of the skin and cause intense rashes and itching – in some cases, this can even lead to severe eczema. Mange can be treated by special dips or spot-on treatments.
This is a disease caused by the parasite: roundworms which live in the intestines of unwormed dogs and cats. The worms shed eggs which pass out with the faeces and then contaminate the sand or soil where children play. Ingested eggs hatch into larvae which spread to other organs, causing fever, coughing & wheezing, rashes, swollen lymph nodes and in rare cases, permanent blindness. Toxocariasis can be prevented by regularly worming your cats and dogs and washing hands thoroughly after handling them.
Cat Scratch Fever
This is an infection caused by the Bartonella henselae bacteria, which is transmitted when a child is scratched or bitten by a cat. Symptoms include fever, headaches, fatigue and painful, swollen lymph nodes. In healthy adults, the disease usually resolves itself and they rarely need treatment. However, it can be dangerous if left untreated in young children with weaker immune systems and in such cases, doctors may prescribe antibiotics if the infection is severe. Note, though, that incidence of serious infection is rare.
A disease that is usually talked about in pregnant women, this is caused by a parasite found in cat faeces. It can cause muscle pain, swollen lymph glands, fever, sore throat and rashes, although healthy adults often show no symptoms at all. In those with compromised immune systems, however, such as pregnant women and young children, severe complications may occur from this infection.
In particular, it can lead to severe developmental abnormalities in the growing foetus so pregnant women are often advised not to handle litter trays or to use gloves and wash hands thoroughly afterwards if they have to do so. In children, toxoplasmosis can cause inflammation in the central nervous system, liver, and eyes in severe cases. So all litter boxes should be kept out of reach of inquiring little fingers.
This bacteria is carried in the intestines of infected dogs, cats, birds, hamsters and certain farm animals, and will cause diarrhoea, fever and abdominal pain. However, more people are infected by camplybacter from eating undercooked meat or drinking contaminated water or unpasteurized milk than from contact with pets. It is always a good idea, however, to remove any faecal waste material from pets as soon as possible. Campylobacter can be contagious, especially between children at school, childcare and in the family but it can be treated by antibiotics.
Cryptococcosis and Parrot Fever (psittacosis)
These are two diseases caused by microorganisms that are found in infected bird droppings or dust and dander in bird cages. These micro-organisms can be unwittingly inhaled when cleaning the cage or interacting with the bird. They can cause pneumonia, headaches, coughing and high fever and may lead to serious complications such as meningitis in those with weakened immune systems. Therefore, it is best if young children do not clean out bird cages or only do so with heavy supervision.
While there may seem to be a frightening list of potentially dangerous pet diseases, remember that as long as you keep your pet regularly wormed and treated for external parasites, such as ticks and fleas – and as long as you take commonsense precautions like always washing your hands thoroughly after handling animals (and before handling food!) – then the incidence of infection from pets is relatively rare.
And even once infected, in many cases, the illness can be easily treated or will resolve by itself, often with no outwards symptoms! It is only in rare cases that the disease will develop severe complications.