They’re cute and cuddly and can actually help you improve your health. But your pet could also be harboring dangerous parasites that could infect you and lead to serious illness. There are as many as 42 diseases that humans can contract as a result of handling, feeding, cleaning up after or simply living with animals. You don’t have to have exotic pets to face a danger. Cats and dogs can harbor many dangerous organisms that can be passed along to their human companions.
Perhaps the most well-known parasite you can catch from your pet is toxoplasma gondii. Toxoplasmosis, the disease cause by these parasites, is carried by cats. Cats who roam outdoors are more susceptible to picking up this parasite by eating infected birds or rodents.
Cats can shed millions of eggs of the toxoplasma gondii in their feces each day. People with compromised or immature immune systems are especially susceptible to catching the disease. Toxoplasmosis causes flu-like symptoms which can last for a month or longer. It can be fatal in people with weakened immune systems.
It is estimated that 30-40% of humans have been infected with the disease. In pregnant women, the parasites can travel to the fetus, causing death or lifetime illness. Humans are mostly infected by coming into contact with animal feces. Children can become infected by playing in outdoor sandboxes where cats have defecated.
In the U.S. it is estimated that between 4% and 20% of children catch roundworm from their pet cat or dog each year. If not treated for this parasite, nearly 100% of kittens and puppies will become infected with roundworm.
The roundworm oocyst, or egg, can survive for many years in soil. Once ingested by humans, the oocysts hatch in the intestines and migrate throughout the body. Symptoms of roundworm infection include fever, lethargy, coughing, asthma or pneumonia. If the roundworm parasites enter the eyes, they can cause blindness. According to statistics, between 750 and 1,500 children go blind each year because of roundworm they caught from pet feces.
Cryptosporidiosis, commonly called crypto, is caused by a one-celled parasite that can cause severe watery diarrhea, stomach cramping, nausea and fever.
Humans catch crypto by their mouth coming into contact with anything that has touched pet feces. This can include pet tongues or soil. The parasites are so small that 10,000 of them could fit on the period at the end of this sentence. There is no cure for crypto, although drugs can be used to reduce the symptoms.
The risk of catching cryptosporidiosis is greatest if your pet is less than 6 months old or has active diarrhea. Stray animals also carry a higher risk. Preventing cryptosporidiosis involves good hygiene practices when handling pets and their feces.
Tapeworm & Hookworm
Although relatively rare in the U.S., infection from these two parasites you can catch from your pet does happen. Humans can become infected with tapeworm from their pet by swallowing an infected flea. Keeping flea infestation of your pet and home under control is the best defense against tapeworms.
Hookworms infest soil contaminated by animal feces, usually in tropical areas. However, any warm location, such as the southern U.S. can be prone to hookworm. Humans become infected by walking barefoot on contaminated soil. Always wear shoes when walking on soil in tropical locations.
How to Avoid Catching Parasites from Your Pet
The first step in protecting yourself from parasites you can catch from your pet involves basic hygiene practices. Always wash your hands with soap and warm running water after handling your pet or their feces. Make sure your pet is up to date on all their vaccinations. Make sure they visit their vet at least once a year for preventative care.
Don’t handle a sick pet, especially one that has diarrhea. Wear gloves when cleaning up the diarrhea or vomit of a sick pet.
Avoid playing roughly with your pets. If you are bitten or scratched, immediately wash the area with soap and water. Never let your pet lick your mouth, face, any open wound or scratch you may have. Remember, pets may have feces in their mouths or on their tongue from self-cleaning. If you have a weakened or immature immune system, never handle pet feces.
Don’t allow your pet to drink from the toilet or eat feces. Make sure pets do not come into direct contact with any surface where food is prepared or consumed, including the dining room table, stove top and countertops.
Web MD: Diseases from Animals
Web MD: Cryptosporidiosis