A woman is sleeping in bed while her hound dog lays close to her
There are some diseases, viruses and infections your pets can and can’t pass along to you, however there are things you can do to protect yourself and your family.
Photo Credit: igorr1 / iStockPhoto.com

The Facts About Passing Infections Between People and Pets

Pets are fantastic for your health. The unconditional love and support of an animal can have remarkable physical and emotional benefits, and may even help you overhaul your entire perspective and quality of life. On the other hand, pet ownership comes with certain risks, and while there are some clear health benefits, there are also some unhealthy downsides.

Animals tend to get into things — and under things, and over things, and through things. Their fur catches all sorts of debris, and that can make its way to you pretty quickly. Dealing with dirty furniture is one thing, but what about illnesses and infections?

Animal and people are different, sure, but you and your beloved pet are prone to some of the same health issues. Find out what diseases, viruses and infections your pets can and can’t pass along to you, and what you can do to protect yourself and your family.

Do People and Pets Contract the Same Viruses?

You may have noticed your pet gets the sniffles from time to time, or develops a cough that’s strangely similar to the hacking that comes with the flu. But do cats and dogs suffer from the same common colds and seasonal flus that plague humans?

In general, no, they don’t. The viruses that cause respiratory infections and leave you feeling under the weather are not the same bugs that attack your dog or cat’s system. However, there are respiratory infections that can make your pets quite sick, and they can pass that sickness onto other pets (perhaps the best example is the condition known as “kennel cough”).

But there are exceptions to the rule. Some experts have pointed to the fact that the H1N1 virus — a human affliction — has been found in cats in the United States, which suggests felines may be susceptible to some of the same flu infections as humans (dogs don’t appear to share that vulnerability).

Types of Infections Pets Can Share With People

The common cold may not bring cause for concern, but other types of infections that can move quite easily between people and pets call for your close attention. These are known as zoonotic diseases, and animals — especially those that wander outdoors — are magnets for all sorts of them. Arm yourself with a good understanding of the common threats so you can treat any issue before it becomes a household epidemic.


In many cases, parasites travel to humans through animal feces, so whether you’re hastily cleaning out a litter box or digging around in a garden, you could be subjecting yourself to nasty microscopic invaders. Even if you avoid hand to mouth contact, you’re not out of the woods: many parasites and their larvae can travel through skin.

  • Roundworm. Spread by touching animal feces, often in contaminated soil.
  • Hookworm. Larvae in infected dirt can travel through exposed skin.
  • Toxoplasmosis. Contracted by touching feces or infected raw meat.

Good handwashing habits are the best way to keep parasites at bay, and be sure to cover any skin that comes into contact with soil, dirt or pet poop.

Fungal Infections

Certain fungal infections are particularly stubborn and not too choosy when it comes to the species of their host. Ringworm is a well-known infection (and not actually a worm) that can pass from animals to humans, usually through close contact with your furry friend.

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The most common sign of ringworm is a rash with red, scaly, crusted or bumpy edges. As the name suggests, this rash typically manifests in a ring shape, ranging from small circles to large patches. Keep a close eye on the stomach, chest, back, arms and lower legs — the regions where ringworm rashes pop up most often.

Bacterial Infections

When pets shed, scratch or bite, they can pass along some forms of bacteria that can lead to systemic sickness. Fever, gastrointestinal distress, pain and lethargy are some of the most common symptoms of these bacterial infections you can contract from animals:

  • Salmonella. Reptiles can shed this bacteria, which leads to nausea, diarrhea and fever in humans.
  • Psittacosis. Spread through bird droppings or feather dander, you can contract it simply by inhaling the infected dust.
  • Bartonella. More commonly known as cat scratch disease, it brings fever, joint pain and headaches.
  • Pasteurella. Causes fever and illness, and is typically spread via an animal bite.

There are many sorts of bacteria that could float between people and animals, though many are rather uncommon among domesticated pets. However, a variety of wild animals, from rodents to wolves, can pass along serious and sometime fatal diseases, like rabies and the hantavirus.

Mites and Bugs

Fleas, mites, lice and other critters can easily jump from pet to person when there’s frequent close contact. Sarcoptes scabiei (commonly known as the itch mite) is especially widespread and easily passed along, resulting in the irritating, itchy condition known as scabies, or mange.

Scabies is uncomfortable, unsightly, and can be difficult to get rid of once the infestation intensifies. Look out for early signs (which are the same for humans and pets), including clusters of small red bumps, chronic itchiness (especially at night) and hair loss, to get a handle on the problem right away.

Lyme disease is another serious infection that can leave both pets and people in a terrible condition. While an affected animal can’t pass on the disease to you through their saliva, urine or other bodily fluids, you could be bitten by the same tick — be sure to check your dog, cat, and your own body thoroughly to spot any ticks that may have latched on during a walk, hike or afternoon in the park.

How to Protect Your Health Without Giving Up Your Pet

The mere possibility of contracting an illness from your pet shouldn’t push you to give up on your companion. As long as you take some measures to protect yourself and build up your pet’s natural defenses, you can both live a healthy life together.

Practice Good Hygiene

First and foremost, stay clean. This means thorough, frequent handwashing is a must, and you should get into the habit of wearing gloves when gardening, picking up after your dog, and cleaning litter boxes. When it comes to bird cages, wear a face mask when cleaning the inside, since airborne dust can harbor nasty viruses.

A clean house and regular washing is important, but it doesn’t guarantee you’ll stay infection-free. You can vastly improve your chances of avoiding zoonotic diseases by also keeping your pet healthy, clean, and up-to-date on their vaccinations. Visit your vet for a check-up now and then, and don’t skimp on pet food: the higher quality varieties will do wonders for your pet’s overall health and immunity.

Observe and Report

If you see any suspicious changes in your pet’s behavior, bathroom habits or demeanor, don’t wait to see if things clear up on their own. Anything more than a sniffle should probably be checked out by a vet, who will be able to tell if the condition is anything to worry about. If needed, they will run blood tests or cultures to get to the bottom of the problem.

If your animal friend is sick, take care of them by keeping their eating, sleeping and bathroom space clean, and try not to come into close contact with their saliva while they recover. Like people, pets need lots of rest and fluids to overcome illness, so give them the space and nourishment they need to recover.