Zoonoses – diseases you can catch from your dog (and how to prevent them)

Owning a dog has many emotional, social, mental, and health benefits. It is estimated that more than 60% of Western families own a pet, mostly a dog. This means a group of adults and young children living together with an animal. 

However, people often don’t realize that dogs are a potential source of pathogens that can be transmitted to humans. Diseases that can be transmitted from dogs to humans are called zoonoses. 

We also see an increase in the population of stray dogs in urban areas, which can act as a reservoir for different diseases. 

I think we vets (and general practitioners as well) need to talk more about zoonoses. Because there are definitely risks, especially if you are in a high-risk group or have small children. 

Owning an animal has so many benefits, but as the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility 😋 You need to know how to minimize the risk of contracting a zoonosis from your (or some other) dog.

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While I am a veterinarian, this article is not intended to replace professional veterinary advice. If you have any medical concerns about your pet, consult your vet immediately. Always seek professional assistance if you are unsure of your pet’s health.

a man with a golden labrador

What is the definition of zoonoses?

Zoonoses or zoonotic diseases are terms we use to describe infections that can be transmitted from animals to humans. So basically it’s a term that describes any kind of disease you can get from an animal, not just from dogs, but also from ticks, mosquitos, bats…  

The terms can also be a bit confusing, should it be zoonosis or zoonoses? “Zoonosis” is singular, like a disease, and “zoonoses” is plural, like diseases 😊

In this post, I’m going to focus on zoonoses you can get from a dog. And I mean not just your or your neighbor’s dog, but any dog you encounter. Because people tend to forget that they can get a disease even from a short contact with an animal. 

Let me explain what I mean – when I was around 8 years old, my family went on a vacation to Turkey. The hotel, beach, and resort were modern and beautiful. However, there were a lot of stray dogs roaming free. Adult dogs and puppies. I loved it. But my mum said I can’t play with them. I couldn’t understand why, they were so cute! But my mum is a doctor. And she saw what I didn’t. She saw that most of the dogs had skin problems. She saw that some of them even had bowel problems and were probably never dewormed. She saw that some of those puppies were not healthy. So her education kicked in. I was really upset at the time, but now I understand. I wouldn’t let my daughter play with them either. 

A few years ago we went to Bali. We LOVED it. Totally and completely, true love at first sight 😍 If you’ve ever been to this beautiful island, you know that the term “Bali dogs” is a real thing. They are everywhere. I love animals, especially dogs and cats, so Bali was a true paradise for me. However, I had to think about hygiene a lot 🤷‍♀️ The good part is that as an adult, you can pet those cuties without having to visit a doctor when you get back from your vacation ☺️

Knowing about zoonoses doesn’t mean you can’t touch any animal. I certainly wouldn’t want to live like that. Do you want to pet that adorable Bali dog? Go ahead, but be aware of the risks and behave accordingly. There are things you can do to lower the risk of contracting zoonosis, we will talk about them later. 

Zoonoses are diseases you can get from an animal

How great is the risk of catching a zoonosis from a dog?

While contracting disease from domestic pets is relatively rare when you compare it to the overall transmission of pathogens, it still does happen. 

Many factors influence the risk – housing, pet age, veterinary care… It also matters if your dog is vaccinated, and regularly dewormed, if he’s not allowed to roam freely, or if you take him to a vet if he’s showing signs that he might be ill. 

There is a group of people who are at higher risk of developing a zoonosis infection. When I was a student we called this high-risk group YOPI – Young children, Old people, Pregnant women, and Immunocompromised people (cancer patients, HIV patients…).

If you or your family member belong to a high-risk group, you should be extra careful when living with an animal. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t have a pet. It’s best to talk to your doctor. 
You need to monitor your pet for any signs of an illness, wash your hands often, and avoid any contact with your dog’s feces and urine. You should also regularly take your dog to a vet for a checkup. Again, talk to your doctor about the best risk-reducing measures. 

Children and immunocompromised individuals are at higher risk of contracting a zoonosis

How can you contract a zoonosis?

Dogs are a potential source of pathogens that can be transmitted to humans. 

These pathogens can be transmitted by infected saliva, aerosols, contaminated urine, or feces and via direct contact with the dog.  

So in general, we can divide zoonoses into 2 groups – those transmitted through direct contact and bites or scratches and those transmitted via vectors or contaminated materials. 

This means you can contract a disease not just when a dog bites or scratches you, but also during petting or playing, or when he licks your face and mouth. 

You can contract a zoonosis even during playing or petting your dog

Examples of the most common zoonoses you can get from a dog

1. Bacterial zoonoses humans can get from dogs

Several bacterial infections can get transmitted from dogs to humans. Some of them cause gastrointestinal or respiratory problems in dogs, however, some of them are a part of normal bacterial flora in healthy dogs. 

You should always be careful if your dog has diarrhea. Especially small puppies are susceptible to bowel problems, so make sure you keep your puppy separated from your kids. Although puppy diarrhea can be caused by different things, make sure you keep your puppy separated from your kids

Some bacteria, like Campylobacter or Salmonella, cause gastrointestinal problems in dogs and humans. Patients usually have a fever, diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. These infections can be life-threatening in small children. 

Some bacteria are a part of normal bacterial flora in a dog’s mouth but can cause severe wound infections when a dog bites you. 

Sometimes people get severe infections not from dogs directly, but by handling raw meat and animal products. While it’s getting increasingly popular to feed dogs raw meat, people tend to forget that raw meat can be a source of dangerous bacteria, especially Salmonella and Campylobacter. You need to implement strict hygiene measures if you want to handle raw meat safely. 

Zoonosis - be very careful if your dog has diarrhea or is sick

2. Parasitic zoonoses humans can get from dogs

I find this point extremely important, especially if you have small children. There are several very unpleasant parasitic infections you or your kids can catch from a dog. 

Internal parasites usually cause gastrointestinal problems and diarrhea in dogs and humans, external parasites can cause skin irritations and skin diseases. 

Giardia and Cryptosporidium are protozoa that can cause acute to chronic diarrhea with weight loss in both dogs and humans. 

Echinoccocus is a tapeworm, that can cause echinococcosis. Again, the risk is higher if you are feeding your dog uncooked raw meat, or when the dog is roaming free and finds carrion he eats. 

Then there is roundworm (Toxocara canis). It can cause gastrointestinal problems and weight loss. 

I cannot stress this enough, you should deworm your dog at least every 3 months if you have small children! Even if you don’t have kids you should deworm your dog at least every 6 months.

Mites are external parasites that are transmitted relatively easily through direct physical contact. They can cause zoonotic skin diseases. 

Zoonoses - regular deworming is important especially if you have small kids

3. Fungal zoonoses humans can get from dogs

You may have heard about the disease called ringworm. It is caused by a fungal infection and contrary to its name there are no worms involved 😉

You can get it by handling, petting, or grooming an infected animal. It’s usually a red circular rash with clearer skin in the middle. I’ve had it during my studies, it’s itchy and highly uncomfortable, but it usually responds well to anti-fungal treatment. 

4. Viral zoonoses humans can get from dogs

The most known viral zoonosis is rabies. It’s caused by a rhabdovirus and transmitted by bites and scratches. Dogs can get infected from contact with wildlife. Infected animals often display neurological symptoms and behave unusually. Stray dogs with unusual behavior should be handled with caution. 
The disease is fatal for both animals and humans. In 3rd world countries, people get mainly infected by dog bites, while in developed countries the main rabies reservoirs are wild animals (foxes, raccoons, or bats). The disease is preventable, there is a vaccine for both humans and dogs. In some countries vaccinating your dog against rabies is compulsory. 

Noroviruses can cause gastroenteritis in humans. You can get infected by the feces of infected dogs.

Zoonoses prevention – how to reduce the risk of catching a disease from your dog

If you or your family member belong to a higher-risk group, talk to your doctor. 

For the normal population, dog bites and scratches pose the greatest risks, since they happen so often. 
If you get bitten or scratched by a dog, you need to disinfect the wound as soon as possible. If the wound gets red and/or swollen or you develop some other symptom like fever, you need to see a doctor. I would also recommend seeing a doctor if the wound is deep. 

Some other preventive measures are:

  • Be very careful when handling raw meat in your kitchen. Store and handle raw meat separately. 
  • Deworm your dog regularly with a broad-spectrum product
  • Use flea and tick control products to prevent tick-borne diseases
  • Vaccinate your dog
  • In case your dog shows any signs of illness, take him to a vet for proper diagnosis and treatment
  • If your dog is sick, wash your hands after handling him
  • If your dog has diarrhea, thoroughly wash or disinfect the place where he’s sleeping or where some feces might have fallen. Keep him away from children. Wash your hands thoroughly after handling the dog or his bedding, chew toys… 
  • Be careful if you have small children – don’t let the dog lick their face. Don’t let them touch your dog’s butt or feces (yep, it does happen)
  • Groom your pet regularly and look for any signs of skin problems
  • Wash your pet’s bedding regularly
  • Don’t touch stray dogs, or if you are like me and have to pet them, wash your hands thoroughly afterward. Avoid touching your face, food, and drinks. 

By following these simple instructions, you can greatly reduce the risk of contracting a zoonosis. 

By following a few simple instructions, you can reduce the risk of contracting a zoonosis

Zoonoses are diseases you can get from an animal. People often don’t realize that dogs are a potential source of pathogens. You can contract a disease not just when a dog bites or scratches you, but also during petting or playing, or when he licks your face and mouth. There are several zoonotic diseases you can get from a dog, and some of them are even fatal. However, there are a few things you can do to lower the risk of getting zoonosis, like regular deworming or being extra careful when your dog is sick. This is especially important if you have small children. 

But don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean you can’t pet stray dogs or enjoy a happy life with your pup. If you know the risks, you can take preventive measures and avoid most of the problems. 
Prevention and caution is the key to a happy co-living with any kind of animal 😊

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