Staying Healthy Around Animals
When you spend time around an animal—whether it's a pet, a farm animal, or a wild animal—there's a chance you can pick up an infection.
An infection you get from an animal is called a zoonosis (say "zoh-uh-NOH-sus"). Some infections can seem mild, but others can be quite serious. So it's a good idea to learn about your risks and how to protect yourself and other people. People who are most in need of protection are children under age 5, pregnant women, and people with weak immune systems.
Washing your hands well may be all you need to do to prevent infection from some animals. But with others, you need to do more than simple hand washing.
How can animals make you sick?
You can get a zoonosis from a mammal, a reptile, an amphibian, or a bird. It could be a pet, an animal at a farm or a petting zoo, or a wild animal that passes infection on to you.
It's not just touching an animal that can expose you to an infection. You can get infected when you:
- Touch something that an animal has touched, such as bedding, a kennel, a stall, or your own clothing.
- Touch feces or urine from an animal.
- Are licked, scratched, or bitten by an animal.
- Breathe in dust that carries disease from an animal, as in a barnyard or a mouse nest.
- Handle animal meat. Kitchen and food prep areas can be contaminated by raw meat, such as chicken, beef, or game.
- Drink water from canals, creeks, or lakes. They might be contaminated with animal waste.
- Eat food from infected animals, such as raw milk, cheese, or meat, or eat produce grown in contaminated water.
Before you travel, learn about common animal-borne infection risks where you're going. Then learn how to protect yourself from them.
How can you prevent infections from animals?
Keep your pet healthy
- Keep up with your pet's vaccinations.
- De-worm pets, especially puppies and kittens. They're a common source of worms. Talk to your veterinarian about what to use and how often.
- House train or litter box train your pet. Clean up pet waste often.
- Control and remove fleas and ticks. They can carry disease.
- Visit your vet when your pet is ill or is acting differently than usual.
Wash and clean
- Wash or change your pet's bedding regularly.
- Wash your hands thoroughly after you handle any animal, including the fur or meat of dead animals. If you have no soap and water, use a gel hand sanitizer or alcohol-based hand wipe containing 60% to 90% ethyl alcohol or isopropanol.
- Change and wash your clothes as soon as you come back home from handling animals at a petting zoo or farm.
- Clean up carefully after an animal has vomited or had diarrhea. Wash or replace bedding. Use disinfectant to clean all hard surfaces that have been soiled.
- In general, wash your hands before you eat and after you prepare food.
- If there's a chance that a cat or mice walk on kitchen counters, clean counters often with a disinfectant.
- Carefully clean up all rodent droppings you find indoors. Use rubber gloves and a spray disinfectant. Avoid stirring up and breathing in dust.
Avoid contact when you can
To lower your risk of getting a disease from an animal:
- Avoid touching animal feces or urine.
- Avoid touching an animal, then touching your face, food, or other things you'll touch later, such as a phone or a wallet.
- Don't let an animal lick your mouth or face. Protect wounds from animal saliva.
- Keep pets out of your bed.
- Avoid wild animals. If you need to touch or move an injured or dead animal, wear gloves. Use caution.
- Avoid touching dirt or sand where feces are likely to have been. This could be in a sandbox or a garden area. Wearing shoes and gloves helps protect you.
Help children stay healthy around animals
- At a petting zoo or farm, avoid pacifier use. Watch for thumb-sucking and eating with unwashed hands.
- Help with thorough hand-washing right after a child touches or handles an animal.
- Do not allow children to handle turtles, baby chicks or ducklings, or other small pets. Young children tend to kiss or lick these types of animals. Some children may even try to swallow the smallest turtles and could choke.
- Teach children to avoid animals they don't know and to always ask for permission before going near someone else's animal.
What are some examples of infections from pets?
Even pets that seem to be healthy can spread disease. Some infections you can get from pets include:
- Cat-scratch fever, which causes swelling and pain in the lymph nodes and loss of appetite. In most cases, it occurs after a scratch, bite, or lick in an open wound from a cat or kitten.
- Campylobacter and cryptosporidium, which cause diarrhea, cramping, stomach pain, fever, and vomiting. You can be infected when you handle feces from a dog, a cat, or a farm animal. Be especially careful around an animal with diarrhea.
- Hookworms and roundworms, which can cause stomach pain, bleeding, swelling, diarrhea, and sometimes painful skin irritation. You can get these tiny worms from animal feces.
- Salmonellosis, which causes diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps. You can be infected by handling reptiles, baby chicks and ducklings, and small rodents such as hamsters and guinea pigs.
- Toxoplasmosis, which can cause no symptoms or a mild flu-like illness. Toxoplasmosis can be dangerous for a pregnant woman's developing baby (fetus) and for someone with a weak immune system. You can get it by touching an infected cat, its feces, or something that the cat has touched.
What infections can you get from farm and wild animals?
E. coli is a common infection that can cause a dangerous type of diarrhea. You can be infected by cattle on a farm or by sheep or goats in a petting zoo.
Serious but less common infections
- Q Fever can cause flu-like illness, diarrhea, vomiting, and chest or stomach pain. It is dangerous for people with heart valve problems. You can be infected by manure or dust from areas where cattle, sheep, or goats live, or from unpasteurized milk.
- Brucellosis infection can cause serious long-term illness. It starts with flu-like symptoms. You can be infected by unpasteurized milk or cheese, or undercooked meat from an infected animal. Herd animals on the farm and in the wild can be infected. Hunters and animal handlers beware—you can also breathe in the bacteria when you handle infected meat, hides, or wool.
- Hantavirus and lymphocytic choriomeningitis (LCMV) can cause serious illness. LCMV is also dangerous for a pregnant woman's fetus. You can be infected by breathing in dust from rodent bedding or mouse urine and droppings, or from a mouse bite.
- Rabies is nearly always fatal if it's not treated before symptoms appear. You can be infected if you get scratched or bitten by an infected wild animal. Bats are the most common carriers of rabies.
What's important during pregnancy?
When you're pregnant, be extra careful around animals, foods from animals, and animal waste. Wash your hands after you touch an animal or anything that could have been contaminated by an animal.
- Do not clean or breathe dust from cat litter boxes, rodent or bird cages, or places where house mice have been. Ask someone else to do the cleaning. If you have to clean, wear gloves and a face mask.
- Disinfect food prep and eating areas that a cat, bird, or rodent may have walked on.
Ask your doctor if there are any other local types of infection you should protect against during pregnancy.
Where can you get more information?
To learn more about infections from animals, see the Centers for Disease Control at http://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/.
Current as of: January 26, 2020
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Leslie Tengelsen PhD, DVM - Zoonotic Disease