Zoonotic Diseases Explained

A zoonotic disease is a disease that can be passed from animal to human. It includes parasitic diseases, viruses and bacterial diseases. Some of the world’s deadliest diseases are zoonotic diseases. West Nile Virus, the bird flu, and mad cow disease are some zoonotic diseases that have gotten a lot of press lately.
However rabies, a disease we hear little about , is probably more prevalent worldwide than all of the others and is always fatal, there is no cure. The good news is that there are vaccines to prevent rabies. All mammals can get rabies, although some species are more susceptible than others. While dogs, cats and bats are generally thought of as carriers of rabies, other domestic animals such as horses, cows and pigs readily get rabies and their size and strength make them formidable problems when they become rabid. Wild animals such as skunks, raccoons and fox that are often found close to our homes, also have high rates of rabies. Mice, rats and rabbits, however , are seldom found with rabies and there are no known cases of rabies in man being contracted from those animals. All domestic animals should be vaccinated for rabies. Each species has a slightly different vaccine formula and that is why exotic pets pose special risks, as there is often no vaccine that is just the right one for them. Vaccination for rabies usually takes place at about 4-6 months of age, and most states require that a veterinarian administer the vaccine to pets. Booster vaccinations are required throughout the animals life. Humans do not usually receive rabies vaccinations unless they have been bitten by an animal suspected of, or known to have rabies. Sometimes when an epidemic of rabies breaks out in an area, people who handle animals in their line of work are also vaccinated. If given within a few days of a bite or contact with a rabid animal, the vaccine will prevent the disease.
Not all animals with rabies are running around viciously attacking others with foaming mouths. Rabies is a disease that affects the nervous system and can have various effects on it’s victims. Some animals become quiet and withdrawn, they may become rigid and semi-comatose almost immediately. Wild animals may be out in the daytime and seem to have no fear of humans. Some animals do drool or foam at the mouth because swallowing is affected. Some animals do become violent and attack without provocation. They may circle or wander aimlessly and appear not to hear or see. Animals do not eat or drink after symptoms begin and will die in a few days. The virus is passed in the saliva and other bodily fluids and may enter through any break in the skin, not just from a bite. The incubation period of the disease can be from 10 days to 6 months or longer. Anyone who thinks that they have been in contact with a rabid animal or who is bitten by an animal whose vaccination status is unknown, should see a healthcare professional immediately. If an animal dies that is suspected of carrying rabies , or it has to be killed to protect others, it’s head should not be damaged, as the brain is used to test for the virus. Contact the local health department immediately and they will tell you what procedures to follow.

Other zoonotic diseases such as West Nile Virus can also be prevented. West Nile is a viral disease that also affects the nervous system. People get it from a mosquito who has bitten an infected bird. There are vaccines for horses to prevent West Nile, but not for people. People should wear mosquito repellent when outdoors in warm weather and keep all standing water around their homes emptied or treated to prevent mosquitoes from hatching. Unlike rabies, only a sew people who contract West Nile will die, most have only a mild flu-like illness. Eastern Equine and Western Equine Encephalitis are also carried by mosquitoes and occasionally affect humans.

The three major causes of infectious diarrhea, campylobacteriosis, salmonellosis, and giardiasis can also be passed from animal to human and vice versa. Good hygiene is the way to prevent these diseases. Frequent hand washing, especially by children, cleaning up all accidents immediately and seeking medical care for both humans and animals in a household where diarrhea is occurring, is the key to preventing further spread. Small turtles kept as pets and baby chicks have also been linked to outbreaks of salmonellosis.

Other parasites, such as hook worm and roundworm, while they may not affect animals and humans in the same way, can be passed from animal to human. All pets should be wormed as soon as they are brought into a home and checked for worms on a regular basis. Once again children should be taught to wash their hands after playing with pets. Wildlife can also carry parasites to humans. Raccoons in some areas carry a type of roundworm that is very dangerous. Don’t feed wildlife on porches and decks or anywhere food is served to humans, clean up feces completely and once again, practice good hygiene. While dogs and cats do not get the kind of pinworm that humans do, they can carry the eggs on their fur when someone who is infected handles them and pass the eggs to another human.

Toxoplasmosis is shed in the feces of cats that have the disease and is a particular threat to pregnant women. It is a very common disease, but most cases in humans produce no ill effects. But if a mother gets the disease early in pregnancy, her baby may be born with health problems, including mental retardation. Pregnant women should not empty cat litter boxes and should avoid working in soil that cats have used as a toilet.

There are many other zoonotic diseases. Ticks and fleas carry disease. Ringworm is a fungal disease that may spread from animal to human. Animals who bite or scratch may infect people with bacterial diseases such as rat bite fever and cat scratch fever. Animals may pass TB to people. Considering how close Americans are to their pets though, the incidence of animal carried disease is low. Good medical care for your pet, proper vaccinations and good hygiene practices will prevent most problems.