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Sick as a Dog: Beware of Zoonotic Diseases and Parasites


Even the healthiest individuals occasionally find themselves knocked flat by illness - joints aching, swollen glands, mucus production in overdrive, and with a body temperature just a few degrees shy of the surface of the sun. When that happens, it’s time to call in sick to work, stay home from school, crawl into bed and prepare to spend a day at home recovering with your loyal dog for company. But could your canine nursemaid - who only wants to wag his tail until you feel better - find himself affected by some of the same symptoms? Or vice versa - could you have caught this miserable cold from your dog?

Illnesses that are passed between animals and humans are known as zoonotic diseases. Zoonosis, or disease transmission between species, is relatively uncommon between humans and dogs. That’s good news! Your dog cannot catch your cold; you won’t catch the dog’s cold, either. However, there are several persistent zoonotic diseases and parasites that crop up in the United States (and are often more frequent in warm climates). It’s a good idea to be familiar with the risks and symptoms of each.

Rabies: The most serious of all zoonotic diseases still found in the USA, rabies is a fatal disease with no known cure. Rabies is caused by a virus which is transmitted through contact with the saliva of an infected animal, and can occur in almost any mammal - including dogs and humans.

Thanks to an aggressive vaccination program for domestic animals, rabies transmission between dogs and humans is uncommon in the United States. It can still occur, but the biggest danger, to both dogs and humans, comes from contact with infected wildlife. It is important to vaccinate your dog against rabies according to the schedule recommended by your veterinarian and required by state law. If you plan to take a young dog to the woods, be sure the dog’s vaccinations are completed first.

Leptospirosis is a bacterial disease with flu-like symptoms that can sometimes develop into a more serious condition. Leptospirosis is spread through the urine of infected animals, or through soil or water that has been contaminated by an infected animal’s urine. It is more common in rural areas, and infections are treatable with antibiotics.

Ringworm is a fungal infection of the skin. In dogs, ringworm causes itchiness and hair loss. It also causes ring-shaped lesions of raised, red, itchy skin.

Parasites are among the most common maladies shared by humans and dogs. Several types of parasites can carry additional diseases - so although Lyme Disease (for example) cannot pass directly between you and your dog, it could easily be spread by the ticks that can pester you both. The threat posed by parasites varies by location and season; check with your vet or local health officials to see what the most common canine parasites are in your area. Parasite risks include the following:

Ticks are often found in wooded or overgrown areas. Ticks are very small arachnids that feed by burying their heads into a host’s skin to feed on blood. Several types of diseases are spread this way, including Lyme Disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Check you and your dogs for ticks after being in any area with heavy plant cover.

Hookworms, Roundworms and Tapeworms are gastrointestinal parasites. It is very common for puppies to be born with worms they get from their mother. Older dogs can become infected if they ingest eggs, come into contact with the larva which live in the soil, chase and catch infected wild animals, or are in close contact with an infected dog. These parasites can be transmitted to humans, especially children or people with weakened immune systems. Symptoms vary; gastrointestinal parasites can range from nearly unnoticeable to causing very serious disease in dogs and humans. Dogs with a parasitic infection can be given a dewormer. The best prevention for humans is hygiene; wash your hands after handling puppies, poop-scooping, or working with soil in an area that has heavy animal traffic.

Scabies/Sarcoptic Mange is a skin inflammation caused by mites. It is highly contagious and causes severe itching, hair loss (in dogs) and rashes (in humans).

A little familiarity with zoonotic diseases will go a long way towards prevention and early detection! Check your dogs regularly, practice good hygiene, and be alert for any sudden changes in health or behavior. If you are taking your dogs to a UKC event, or any other place where they will be in contact with other dogs, remember that this advice goes double; make sure all their vaccinations are up to date, and you will be all set to have a great, healthy time.