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9 Steps to Protect Your Family From Zoonosis

Getting too close to animals (including your beloved housepets) can make you sick

En español l The scientific term for an illness transmitted from animals to humans is zoonosis. Zoonotic diseases can be a nuisance, like ringworm or cat scratch fever, but some zoonotic diseases, such as Lyme disease and rabies, can cause serious, life-threatening illnesses.

Veterinarian holding pet cat. Protect your family from zoonotic diseases.

Even indoor cats can spread disease. Follow simple steps to protect yourself from zoonosis. — Getty Images

With our pets in the house, eating in the kitchen, prowling around countertops, and sleeping in our beds, we're at a much greater risk than ever from these diseases.

And it's not just dogs and cats that are health threats. From coyotes to mosquitoes, creatures great and small carry diseases that can spread to humans. So what can we do to protect ourselves and our families from zoonotic diseases?

Experts offer these nine simple steps to minimizing the risks of acquiring a disease spread by animals.

1. Be careful when purchasing a pet

Look for warning signs that an animal may be ill. It's not a good sign if a puppy is listless, a cat is losing fur or a bird is dropping feathers. Diarrhea in any animal is another telltale sign of illness. To avoid having to judge for yourself, choose a pet only from reputable sources, such as an animal shelter, a breeder who can guarantee that you have a healthy pet, or a pet store with a good reputation. Many parrots, for example, are smuggled into the country without being quarantined and treated for psittacosis (sit-a-co-sis), also known as parrot fever. Be sure any puppy or kitten has been treated for parasites before you buy it. People with compromised immune systems — such as those undergoing cancer treatments — should not handle or touch turtles, snakes or other reptiles, as they could transmit salmonella.

2. Take care of your pet's health

Most states require regular rabies vaccinations for dogs, cats and ferrets. Rabies is transmitted from the saliva of an infected animal, usually from an animal bite. Also make sure to deworm your puppy and have a veterinarian check for worms at least once a year. Canine roundworms can cause severe abdominal pain, vomiting and intestinal blockage in humans. Give your dogs a monthly preventive pill, such as Sentinel or Heartgard Plus, and spot-on medications, such as Frontline, for internal and external parasites, such as fleas and ticks. And don't allow your pets to roam free. They might have a run-in with disease-carrying wild animals, such as skunks, raccoons, foxes or coyotes.

3. Their dirty business is your dirty business

Don't touch your pet's feces or urine with your bare hands. Discard dog or cat feces before it can foster infective forms of worms. Do it carefully with a pooper-scooper or while wearing disposable gloves.

Don't let dogs and cats do their business in sandboxes, on beaches or playgrounds.

Keep your cat's litter box clean. Wear disposable gloves and wash your hands after cleaning the cat's litter box. Cats can carry Toxoplasmosis, a disease that can sicken pregnant women or people with compromised immune systems. (If you're in this category, don't change cat litter. If you must, wear gloves.)

The same is true if you own a bird: Wear disposable gloves and wash your hands after cleaning its cage. David Schlossberg, M.D., an infectious disease expert with the Philadelphia Department of Health, tells of a 47-year-old woman and her 12-year-old daughter who became ill with headache, fever and coughing after handling their pet parakeets and cleaning the cage. They were both diagnosed with psittacosis (parrot fever). Luckily, they got better after taking an antibiotic, but the disease can lead to pneumonia and other complications.

Next page: Why you shouldn't kiss your pet. »

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