What diseases can we catch from our pets?

cats Image copyright FERGUS WALSH

Following the announcement that two people in England have been infected with tuberculosis by their cat, public health experts were quick to offer reassurance.

The risk of transmission was "very low" and the presence of the infection in cats was "uncommon", they said.

In fact, humans get many of the same diseases as our pets and often people and animals can be infected from the same source.

Here we look at some of the main diseases that can be caught from our pets - and the risks involved.


Image copyright FERGUS WALSH

The most common infection from cats is Cat Scratch Disease, which is caused by the Bartonella bacterium. People usually become infected after being scratched or bitten by a cat and experience swelling around the site of the scratch, and fatigue. It cannot be transmitted between people.

Cats are also the main carriers of the tiny T. gondii parasite that causes toxoplasmosis, but it's also found in dogs, sheep and cattle. The parasite is often found in the faeces of infected cats.

You may not know whether your cat is infected or not because cats don't usually show any symptoms.

If the parasite gets into the environment or food chain, it can be ingested by humans.

The greatest risk is to pregnant women, who could pass the infection on to their unborn baby, potentially causing brain damage and blindness, but severe congenital toxoplasmosis is rare - three in every 100,000 babies are born with the condition in the UK.

Up to a third of the UK population will acquire a toxoplasmosis infection at some point in their life but most people won't notice any symptoms. If symptoms do appear, they will be similar to flu or glandular fever.


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A few years ago, the Health Protection Agency warned that families who keep reptiles as pets could be putting young children in the house at risk of a rare form of salmonella infection.

This is because reptiles, particularly snakes, carry the infection on their skin and shed it in their faeces.

Salmonella infection in people usually causes a mild illness with fever, vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhoea. Babies and young children are more likely to develop a serious illness.

The advice? "Do not kiss your reptile," says Public Health England, and wash your hands thoroughly immediately after handling it.


Image copyright Alan Carey

Ticks can give both dogs and humans Lyme disease, but it is no more likely that a tick would transfer from pet to person than from human to hound.

The most common symptom is a red rash around the tick bite. Flu-like symptoms follow but if left untreated, Lyme disease can cause the joints to swell and lead to neurological problems.

Ticks that cause Lyme disease are commonly found in woodland and heath areas where dogs and their owners could be walking.

Rabies occurs mostly in dogs (and also in bats) but there is no risk to the general public in the UK from rabies in dogs.

Only four cases of human rabies from dogs have been identified in this country since 2000 - all of which were acquired from dogs abroad.

Rabies, a very serious viral infection, is usually transmitted through saliva from the bite of an infected dog. It causes a high fever and aggressive behaviour but it can also spread to the brain and nervous system, and can be fatal.

Developing countries, particularly in South and South East Asia, see most of the 55,000 deaths from human rabies in the world each year.


Image copyright Alan & Sandy Carey

The most common rodents kept as pets in the UK are rats, mice, gerbils, hamsters, agouti, guinea pigs and chinchilla.

All rodents, says Public Health England, whether pets or wild, can carry bacteria and viruses that cause infections in people.

A current problem is hantavirus, a potentially life-threatening disease which has been found in a few people in England who handle pet rats.

Hantavirues can cause a range of diseases in humans - from a mild, flu-like illness to severe respiratory illness or kidney disease.

Other infections that can be transmitted to humans include leptospirosis, rat bite fever and a type of meningitis caused by a virus called lymphocytic choriomeningitis.

Although uncommon, these infections can have serious consequences.



Psittacosis is a bacterial infection that affects birds, particularly parrots. It can also affect other exotic species such as budgies, cockatiels and macaws as well as ducks, gulls, sparrows and hens.

It is an airborne disease that can be passed to people who own or work with exotic birds. It causes a high fever, diarrhoea, eye infection and bright red spots - but there are few cases in the UK.

Check where that colourful parrot comes from before you take it home.

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