Can pets and people get each other sick?

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If you’re a dog owner — or a dog cohabitant, depending on the dog — you know the scene. 

You come home and your furry family member is waiting anxiously for you at the door, elated that your absence/possible abduction has at long last come to an end. You bend over to pet them and tell them what a good dog they are, and before you know it you’re on the wet-end of a torrential tongue-bath. 

Your dog’s tail whips back and forth as your face undergoes thorough inspection: your nose, ears, mouth, the corner of your eyes — all fair game. Your human loved ones look at you with disgust and concern. “It’s just how he shows his love!” you insist through a deafening barrage of licks. 

Maybe that last part doesn’t apply to you, but living with animals no doubt comes with what can best be described as hygienic challenges. Dogs gleefully shove their noses and paws in places we’d only willingly experience from a distance. During the winter months, when viruses thrive in cooler wetter conditions, interacting with dogs can pose medical complications, especially for people with compromised immune systems.

Dogs shove their noses in places no man would dare brave.

The scientific term for diseases or infections that can be transferred between animals and people is zoonosis. Not all diseases are zoonotic, but it’s worth knowing which ones are and why, in order to safeguard ourselves and our pets from sharing each other’s illnesses. We talked to Dr. Candice Denham from Kailua Animal Clinic to get the facts straight.

The Flu
“There have been no reported cases of canine influenza in humans or human influenza in canines.  However, theoretically this could be possible. The recently discovered canine influenza virus adapted from the horse and bird influenza viruses.  If a dog were to become infected with the human influenza virus, then potentially the canine virus could adapt and become infectious to humans. For this reason it is recommended for people who may be immunocompromised, young children, elderly and pregnant individuals to avoid contact with sick animals.  There haven’t been any reported cases of canine influenza noted in Hawaii but there are vaccines available to protect dogs who may be traveling to areas where there have been known outbreaks.”

“Rabies is another viral infection that can be transmitted from pets to humans through a bite, saliva, or blood.  Hawaii is considered rabies free because there hasn’t been a documented infection. Rabies vaccinations are available and very effective for preventing the disease in animals and humans.  Rabies vaccinations are required for pets traveling to the mainland.”

Rat Lung Worm
“Rat lung worm is an infection that’s spread when a rat ingests a snail that’s been infected with the worm angiostrongylus cantonensis. Humans and dogs are accidental hosts. Accidental hosts are hosts that don’t usually become infected with the worm during its normal life cycle. This infection occurs when the humans or dogs ingest the infected snail or slug. So, this infection is not spread from dogs to humans. To prevent the infection, people are urged to wash fruits and vegetables under running water to remove any tiny snails or slugs, and to control the rat, slug, and snail populations around homes, gardens, and farms.  It’s probably a good idea to inspect produce even if its in a commercial package.”

“Toxoplasmosis is a common parasitic infection in cats. Approximately 1/3 of the human population has been infected with toxoplasmosis. Most humans become infected by handling infected cat feces, gardening, handling contaminated soil or ingesting raw or undercooked meat. Cat feces can only be infectious if the cat has an active infection, and it takes 1-2 days for the spores to develop. The best way to prevent infection is by changing the litter box frequently and wearing gloves while gardening, as well as washing hands thoroughly after handling soil.”

Hookworms and roundworms
“There are several other parasites like hookworms and roundworms that may spread from dog feces to humans. These parasites are most common in children. Your veterinarian can provide medications to treat and prevent these infections. It’s important to pick up after your dog quickly and to wear gloves or thoroughly wash your hands after handling your dogs’ business.”

“Another common infection that is endemic to Hawaii is Leptospirosis.  An infection is endemic when it is commonly found in a particular region.  Leptospirosis is a bacteria found in water contaminated with urine from infected animals. The tropical environment of Hawaii is a great place for this bacteria to grow.  The bacteria can enter through mucous membranes and wounds or broken skin. If your pet becomes infected with leptospirosis then you could potentially get the infection from coming in contact with their infected urine.  There are vaccines available to help prevent infection or reduce the severity of infection in dogs. The most common source of infection is from hiking near fresh water streams. Hawaii post signs at trail heads to advise folks to not put their head under water.  Because this bacteria can live in the moist soil of Hawaii it is recommended that all dogs be vaccinated. If your dog becomes ill it is important to communicate with your veterinarian. This will help avoid the spread of disease to your family members and help to protect public health.”

Dr. Denham will be on KHON2 Thursday night at 7:00 to talk more about zoonotic diseases and how to keep you and your pets safe during the holidays.

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