"Can your pet catch your cold, and vice versa?
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"Can your pet catch your cold, and vice versa?

Health & Safety

It's a question that occurs to most pet owners when they are sick or feeling unwell- can your pets catch your illness, or on the flip side, could you catch an illness from your pet?

Generally speaking, human to animal or animal to human transmission of diseases and illness are fairly uncommon, as pets and people have very different immune systems, and a different genetic make up and anatomy. In the main part, the chance of passing illnesses and conditions back and forth between pet and person is unlikely.

There are a few exceptions to this generalised rule, however, and certain conditions can be passed from human to animal and back. Such conditions are known as ‘zoonotic diseases’ or zoonosis. Do you want to find out more about what kinds of illnesses and ailments can be transmitted between you and your pet- and which ones can’t? Read on to find out more!

What is a zoonosis?

A zoonosis or zoonotic disease is any illness, condition or ailment which can be given to a person by an animal or vice versa. Various different types of animals, both domesticated and wild, can pass illnesses between species; for instance monkeys and apes, which are similar in many ways to humans in terms of their genetic make up and physiology, can transmit several different types of illness to people. However, the incidence rate of very different animals, such as dogs, cats and domestic pets- the types of animals which you are most likely to come into contact with on a daily basis- have a much smaller range of potential pathogens which can cross the animal-human divide. As your domestic pets are the animals which you spend most of your time around, these are the types of animals which we will be looking at in this article.

Can you catch a cough or cold from your pet?

The most commonly asked question when considering pet to person illness transmission is, can pets and people share coughs and colds? The answer to this question is an almost unanimous ‘no.’ Cough and cold viruses are species- specific, and animals and people have very different immune systems, meaning that any viral infection which affects a person is unlikely to attack the immune system of their pet in the same way. So if you’re worried about cuddling up to your cat or dog when you have a cold or the flu, don’t be- they are safe. Similarly, people cannot catch pet coughs and colds, including the virulent and debilitating kennel cough virus- so don’t worry.

What illnesses can you catch from your pet, and vice versa?

Generally speaking, transmitting an illness between people and pets is unlikely. Your immediate family and friends are much more likely to contract the same infectious condition as you have than any of your furry friends are. Similarly, if your cat or dog is sick, another household pet of the same species may come down with the same condition, whereas people are unlikely to, even if the theoretical possibility of infection exists.

So what common illnesses and conditions could potentially be passed between you and your pet? Here are the top ten within the UK, in no particular order.

  1. Worms. Most types of parasitic worms can be transmitted between people and pets with relative ease.
  2. Ringworm. This fungal skin condition crosses the human- animal divide with ease.
  3. Giardia. Giardia is a non-bacterial stomach infection which can lead to sickness and diarrhoea, and can be passed between domestic pets and people.
  4. Cryptospirosis. Cryptosporidium is an organism that can cause stomach upsets and gastrointestinal illnesses in both people and dogs. It is commonly transmitted from dog faces or infected water.
  5. Toxoplasmosis is caused by a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii, which often lives within the intestines of cats, and is usually inert and causes no signs of ill health in cats with a strong immune system. It can be transmitted to people, most commonly from faeces, and can be dangerous in people with compromised immune systems or pregnant women, which is why pregnant women are generally advised not to deal with the cat litter tray, and all cat owners should ensure that they follow good hygiene procedures when cleaning up after their pets.
  6. Salmonella. Salmonella is an intestinal bacteria which can be spread by faeces or raw meat. Salmonella is generally harmless, although it can lead to stomach upsets and sickness in the young, elderly, and those with a compromised immune system.
  7. Leptospirosis. Leptospirosis is usually associated with rodents, and is a bacterial infection which affects the kidneys. Contact with rat or mouse urine and poor hygiene practices are the most common causes of transmission.
  8. Fleas and ticks. Fleas and ticks can be passed between humans and animals, and ticks can transmit a number of illnesses such as Lyme disease to their host animal or person.
  9. Mange and scabies. Mange and scabies are skin infections caused by mites which find the skin and fur of your favourite pet a good host. Much like fleas, mange and scabies mites can easily be passed from animal to human and vice versa.
  10. Cat scratch fever. Cat scratch fever is the name for a condition which can occur when a bite or scratch from a cat introduces the bacteria Bartonella henselae into the body. This condition can lead to flu- like symptoms and swollen glands, and is often confused with colds and flu.

Preventing transmission between yourself and your pets

Contracting or transmitting any condition between yourself and your animals is relatively unlikely, even if the conditions for potential infection are optimum. But there are several ways in which you can further reduce the risk.

  • Keeping your pet’s vaccinations up to date and ensuring that they are generally in good health and well cared for will minimise the likelihood of them carrying or contracting a range of illnesses; as can keeping yourself in good health and looking after yourself properly when you are sick.
  • Regularly treating your pets for fleas, ticks and worms also goes a long way towards minimising any chances of cross infection.
  • Good hygiene practice around animals is vital. Wash your hands after handling pets, do not touch your face and mouth or eat or smoke without washing your hands, and clean up and dispose of cat litter, dog waste and soiled bedding quickly and hygienically.

Finally, don’t get hung up on the potential risk of contracting or passing on an illness to or from your pets. Pregnant women, young children and those with compromised immune systems may need to pay special attention to their interactions with animals, but as a general rule, just be sensible about the way you care for and handle your pets, and the risks will be kept to a minimum.

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