Zoonotic Diseases: How your pets can make you sick

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Published May 11, 2023


As clean and healthy as we try to keep our pets, be they dogs, cats, birds, hamsters or even fish, they can all still carry bacteria and viruses, which can make us humans terribly unwell.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), zoonosis or zoonotic disease is an infectious disease which has jumped from a non-human animal to humans.

Zoonotic pathogens may be bacterial, viral or parasitic, or may involve unconventional agents and can spread to humans through direct contact or through food, water or the environment.

Here are some zoonotic diseases your pet may be carrying, which can make you sick.


“Parrot fever” or psittacosis is a zoonotic disease caused by the Chlamydia psittaci bacteria. It can infect birds such as parrots and, in rare cases, be transmitted to humans as well. Once a person is infected, it can cause mild illness or even pneumonia.

To lower the risk, bird owners should be vigilant when cleaning and handling their birds. Better yet, leave birds where they belong, in trees and in forests, not in a cage.

Mycobacterium marinum

Mycobacterium marinum is caused by bacteria found in water sources and causes skin lesions on the fingers and hands of people. For that reason, people who work with fish or have home aquariums are at risk of developing the illness.

These lesions can heal on their own or persist for months. In rare cases, the infection can cause death in people with weakened immune systems. Should you experience the symptoms, contact your doctor.


While usually harmless, toxoplasmosis can cause serious problems in some people, like pregnant women or individuals whose immune system is already weakened. You can catch the infection through contact with faeces of infected cats or infected meat. Many people don’t experience any symptoms or know they have this problem. However, it can cause flu-like side effects, such as tiredness, feeling sick, a sore throat, and swollen glands.


Caused by the bacteria of the Pasteurella genus, pasteurellosis is a zoonotic disease common in many animals, including chickens, cats, dogs, rodents and livestock. Humans can catch this infection from animal bites, scratches, or licks. If left untreated, the infection can cause meningitis, ocular infections, and respiratory problems. With that in mind, serious animal bites or scratches should always be checked by a medical professional.

Campylobacter infection

With symptoms including diarrhoea, stomach cramps, and sickness, campylobacter infection is caused by a common type of bacteria by the same name. Food animals, like poultry, cattle and pigs, as well as “pocket pets,” cats, and dogs, can carry this illness.

You may become infected if you have contact with the faeces of a sick animal. The infection tends to last only a couple of weeks. However, if the symptoms are severe or you have a weak immune system, you may need additional medical help.


Tapeworm is the name given to ribbon-like worms that can live in your guts and intestines. Dogs and cats often host dipylidium caninum, a common type of tapeworm. However, in some cases, humans can also suffer from this problem if they have contact with fleas that harbour the worm eggs. Doctors can treat this parasite with medication.

Lyme disease

Lyme disease, in most cases, begins with a tick bite. People suffering from this illness may see a circular rash appear around the location of the original bite within four weeks. Some people also have flu-like symptoms, such as headaches, muscular pain and tiredness. If diagnosed early, Lyme disease can almost always be cured through a course of antibiotics.


Humans can catch giardiasis from contact with soil, food, or water that has been contaminated with a Giardia parasite-infected animal’s faeces. Often, these animals will be young, such as puppies or kittens.

The illness causes diarrhoea, gas, stomach cramps and dehydration. People with this infection may have itchy skin and hives. Fortunately, several drugs can treat this infection. Seek medical help should you notice these signs.

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)

Often called a “superbug,” methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is more often transmitted from human to pet and rarely the other way around. This illness has few or no symptoms at first. However, as it gets deeper into your skin, it can cause swelling, pain, and pus. If it gets further into your body, the infection can lead to a high temperature, chills, aches and pains, and confusion. Should you have any of these symptoms, speak to a doctor.

Rat-bite fever (RBF)

As the name suggests, rat-bite fever (RBF) is usually passed on from rodents, carrying either Streptobacillus moniliformis or Spirillum minus bacteria, to humans and can cause severe joint and muscular pains, vomiting, fevers and headaches.

If left untreated, this infection can lead to further issues, such as liver problems, and in extreme cases, become fatal. Don’t hesitate to contact your doctor if you believe you may have contracted RBF.

Streptococcus iniae

A major fish pathogen, Streptococcus iniae, may also be transmitted to humans. In 2009, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention listed this as an emerging infectious disease. People may get infected with this pathogen when handling fish or cleaning out aquariums. There is a more severe risk if you have an open cut or wound while doing so.

Sarcoptic mange (Scabies)

Sarcoptic mange, also known as scabies, is a parasitic skin disease caused by mites. Pet dogs can get this disease from contact with other infected animals, and while your canine will not spread human scabies, the mites that infect them can also affect people. If you have long-lasting skin irritations after playing with your dogs, be mindful that it may be scabies, see a doctor to be safe.

How to reduce your chances of your pet making you sick:

●Wash your hands after playing with pets.

●Do not allow pets on the beds or couches.

●Do not kiss your pets.

●Don’t have a pet.