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Pets and Infectious Diseases

Proper care of your pet may prevent him or her from becoming ill and infecting the household. To prevent the spread of disease from your pet, take these steps:

  • Keep your pet's vaccines up to date.

  • See a veterinarian regularly with your pet for health checkups.

  • Keep your pet's bedding and living area clean.

  • Feed your pet a balanced diet and provide on-going access to clean, fresh water. Don't let your pet eat raw foods or drink out of the toilet.

  • Clean cat litter boxes every day. Pregnant women should not touch cat litter. It may contain harmful germs. These can lead to infectious diseases that cause birth defects, such as toxoplasmosis.

  • Wash your hands thoroughly after touching animals or cleaning up animal waste.

  • Use a device or bag to remove your dog's feces from your yard or public areas. Dispose of the feces in an appropriate container. 

  • Washing hands is very important after touching reptiles. These animals may harbor a bacteria called salmonella. Salmonella can cause salmonellosis. This causes severe diarrhea, fever, and stomach pain or cramps. Most people who get salmonella will have symptoms that last from 4 to 7 days and will get better without treatment. But more serious cases may require a stay in the hospital.

  • Keep children away from areas with dog or cat feces. This will help prevent the spread of roundworms and hookworms.

  • Cover sandboxes so cats don't use them as litter boxes. 

Wild animals and infectious diseases

Wild animals and insects can be carriers for some very serious diseases. These include rabies, tetanus, Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, hantavirus, and the plague. Don't let your child feed or try to play with any wild animals such as squirrels, chipmunks, or raccoons. Never leave a young child alone around any animal—wild or domestic. Animal bites and scratches, even when they are minor, may become infected. They may spread bacteria to other parts of the body. Whether the bite is from a family pet or an animal in the wild, scratches and bites may carry disease. Cat scratches, for example, even from a kitten, may carry cat scratch disease. This is a bacterial infection. Bites and scratches that break the skin are even more likely to become infected.

Immediate care for animal bites

Here is what to do:

  • Wash the wound with soap and water under pressure from a faucet. Do not scrub. This can bruise the tissue.

  • If the bite or scratch is bleeding, put pressure on it with a clean bandage or towel to stop the bleeding.

  • Dry the wound and cover it with a sterile dressing. Don't use tape or butterfly bandages to bring the edges of the wound together. They can trap harmful bacteria in the wound.

  • Call your healthcare provider for guidance in reporting the attack. He or she can also decide if more treatment, such as antibiotics, a tetanus booster, or rabies vaccine, is needed.

  • If possible, find the animal that caused the wound. Some animals need to be captured, confined, and observed for rabies. Don't try to capture the animal yourself. Instead, contact the nearest animal warden or animal control office in your area.

  • If the animal can't be found, if the animal was a high-risk species or the animal attack was unprovoked, the victim may need a series of rabies shots.

What is rabies?

Rabies is a very serious viral infection of warm-blooded animals. It is caused by a virus in the Rhabdoviridae family. The virus infects the central nervous system. Once symptoms develop, it is virtually 100% fatal in animals.

In North America, rabies happens mainly in skunks, raccoons, foxes, and bats. In some parts, these wild animals infect domestic cats, dogs, and livestock. In the U.S., cats are more likely than dogs to be rabid. Generally, rabies is rare in small rodents, such as beavers, chipmunks, squirrels, rats, mice, or hamsters. Rabies is also rare in rabbits. In the mid-Atlantic states, where rabies is increasing in raccoons, woodchucks (groundhogs) can be rabid.

How does rabies happen?

The rabies virus enters the body via the animal's saliva either through a bite, cut or scratch, or through mucous membranes such as the lining of the mouth and eyes. It then travels to the central nervous system. Once the infection is in the brain, the virus travels down the nerves from the brain and multiplies in different organs.

The salivary glands and organs are most important in the spread of rabies from one animal to another. When an infected animal bites another animal, the rabies virus is transmitted through the infected animal's saliva. Scratches by claws of rabid animals are also dangerous because these animals lick their claws.

What are the symptoms of rabies?

The incubation period in humans from the time of exposure to the onset of illness can range anywhere from weeks to months. The average incubation period is about 2 months. These are the most common symptoms of rabies:

  • Pain, tingling, or numbness around the wound site 

  • Low-grade fever

  • Headache

  • Appetite loss

  • Intense thirst, but drinking will cause painful throat spasms

  • Restlessness

  • Hyperactivity

  • Disorientation, anxiety, hallucinations

  • Seizures

Symptoms of rabies may look like other health problems. Always talk with your healthcare provider for a diagnosis. Seek care right away if you think you may have been exposed to rabies.

Preventing rabies

Teach young children to never walk toward or try to touch an unknown animal. Have your cats and dogs vaccinated against rabies. If you have other types of pets, ask your veterinarian if they need a rabies vaccine. Keep your animals in a fenced yard or on a leash. Check that the animal wears its rabies vaccine tag with its vaccine history, name, and your contact information. Call animal control to report any stray animals in your neighborhood. They may be ill or not vaccinated.

Online Medical Reviewer: Barry Zingman MD
Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Rita Sather RN
Date Last Reviewed: 2/1/2019
© 2000-2019 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

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