Pet owners tend to be healthier than people without pets. We have lower cholesterol levels and lower blood pressure, and we’re likely to get more exercise and feel less lonely. However… our pets also have the potential to make us sick.
The numbers are unsettling: There are at least 39 diseases we can catch directly from animals, at least 48 diseases we can get from the bite of bugs that bit an infected animal and at least 42 diseases we can get by ingesting or handling food or water contaminated with animal feces, according to WebMD‘s Diseases From Animals: A Primer.
Before you adopt any type of pet, do your research. Talk to the experts — both those with animal and medical credentials — to determine what types of risks, if any, your new pet might bring. Here, we’ve rounded up a mere six of the nastier diseases you could contract from your non-human family member:
1 — Cat Scratch Disease
Your child tries to pick up the kitty, and it scratches her arm. You forget about it until several days later when the scratch turns into something more. “Cat Scratch Disease looks like a bug bite or a bump and occurs three to 10 days after a scratch,” says Dr. Debra Jaliman, assistant professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.
“The lymph nodes in the area swell and may become tender,” says Dr. Jaliman. “It’s caused by bacteria and can resolve on its own but may need to be treated by antibiotics.” Prevention is the key, and that means supervising your child when he’s playing with cats and kittens.
2 — Mycobacterium marinum
“Mycobacteria marinum are free-living bacteria that can cause infections in humans who keep home aquariums and can result from simply cleaning out a fish tank,” says Dr. Jaliman. “If you have a cut on your hand, the bacteria can enter and cause an infection that eventually manifests itself as a series of red nodules or lesions.”
The lesions, which are typically 1-2.5 centimeters in diameter, appear after an incubation period of two to four weeks. While the infection usually spreads slowly, some cases can progress rather rapidly. Antibiotics will resolve most superficial cases, but surgical intervention is sometimes necessary for deep, extensive infections.
Protect yourself by carefully covering cuts, scrapes or sores while cleaning fish tanks or handling fish. Better yet, wear waterproof gloves and follow with a thorough washing of your hands and forearms with soap and running water. And warn the little ones to always keep their hands out of the aquarium.
3 — Ringworm
Ringworm, scientifically known as dermatophytosis, is caused by a fungal infection of the skin. Despite the name, no worms are involved. Rather, the fungus — or parasitic infection — feeds on the keratin found in the outer layer of your skin, hair and nails.
Anyone, adults and children alike, can get ringworm. You can catch the ring-shaped rash from direct contact with an infected animal, like the family dog.
Most ringworm can be treated with OTC creams. If the fungus keeps coming back, however, your doctor can prescribe pills that will kill it. Without treatment, the ringworm may cause your skin to blister and become infected. If this happens, you will need an antibiotic.
4 — Salmonella
Salmonella bacteria is often found on reptiles and amphibians such as frogs, toads, salamanders, turtles, lizards and snakes. Keep these pets in their habitat and do not let them wander around the house (especially the kitchen). Wash your hands after handling the creatures, and please refrain from kissing them. Ew. Do not clean reptile cages in tubs or sinks that your family uses. And keep salmonella-prone pets away from children under age 1 and people with weak immune systems.
Keep in mind, too, that this severe gastrointestinal infection may also result from contact with pet feces. Always wash your hands (and remind the kids, too) after playing with your pet or handling its waste or waste containers.
5 — Parrot fever
Psittacosis, aka parrot fever, is an infectious disease caused by bacteria contracted from pet parrots, macaws and cockatiels. It’s relatively rare — only about 50 reported cases in the U.S. each year — but experts suggest that many more cases that are not correctly diagnosed may occur.
Symptoms of parrot fever include fever, of course, along with chills, headache, muscle aches and a dry cough. It may also manifest itself through severe pneumonia, which can be fatal. Untreated psittacosis can lead to serious nerve, heart and liver problems.
Parrot fever is treated with an aggressive series of antibiotics. Severely ill patients may receive the antibiotics intravenously.
Before bringing a pet bird into your household, be sure to have it examined by a vet. Birds should be purchased only from reputable suppliers and should be isolated for several weeks before it’s introduced to your family. Always wash your hands after handling your bird or cleaning the cage.
6 — Toxoplasmosis
If your pet cat is allowed to roam around outdoors, it is possible that it will pick up a parasite called toxoplasma gondii. Most cats fight off the infection before it becomes contagious, but sometimes cats shed the parasite in their feces. Danger zones for contracting this infectious disease are litter boxes, garden soil and children’s sandboxes.
Toxoplasmosis can cause long-lasting, flu-like symptoms in the average person, but it can be fatal for someone with a damaged immune system. The worst infections are in pregnant women: The parasitic organism can go to the fetus and cause the baby to die or suffer lifetime illness.