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Can Your Small Mammal Pet Make You Sick?

Learn what you should and should not worry about regarding zoonotic diseases, those that are passed back and forth between people and animals.

Leticia Materi, PhD, DVM
Posted: May 12, 2014, 4 a.m. EDT

guinea pig with ringworm on face
© Courtesy Leticia Materi
Ringworm is a zoonotic disease that can cause hair loss and scabs in some pets like this guinea pig, while others show no signs of it at all.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of my job is getting to interact with entire families when they bring their pet in for an examination. The kids always look very excited and nervous as they watch their beloved rabbit, hamster, gerbilguinea pig or other pet get a thorough medical exam. They get a chance to listen to their pet’s heartbeat through my stethoscope and ask me all of their burning questions about their pet, such as "Why do rabbits poop so much?” and "Can my hamster sleep in my bed?”

 When the examination nears its end, many parents ask the one question that concerns them most: Are there any contagious diseases that my child can get from our pet? Simply put: yes there are. Now before everyone panics, it’s important to discuss this point a little more.

Diseases that can pass from animals to humans are known as zoonotic diseases, and these have been recognized for centuries. Some of these diseases, like rabies, are so serious that efforts have been made to produce vaccines for them. Although the risk of domesticated house pets contracting rabies is extremely low, ferrets are routinely vaccinated for this disease and owners are encouraged to limit contact between house pets and wildlife.

Certain people are more at risk for contracting a zoonotic disease, such as people with cancer, HIV-AIDS, those on immunosuppressant therapy, organ transplant recipients or people that have weaker immune systems, such as young children and the elderly.

One of the most common zoonotic diseases that I have seen in my practice is ringworm. Despite its name, ringworm is not due to worms or parasites. It is a fungal infection. In some animals it causes hair loss and scabs. In others, there are no symptoms at all. When humans contract the disease, it often causes a red, itchy rash that appears redder on the outside with more normal skin tone in the center. This may look like a ring.

It is believed that 25 percent of human ringworm infections are due to exposure to an infected animal. Ringworm can also be transmitted between humans through skin-to-skin contact or infected clothing, towels, combs or sports gear. Ringworm has been isolated from many mammals including guinea pigs, rabbits, ferrets and hedgehogs.

In order to protect yourself from zoonotic diseases it is important to practice good hygiene. Thoroughly wash your hands with soap and running water after handling your pet. Avoid direct contact with droppings. Young children should be supervised when interacting with their pet. They should never kiss their pet or put their hands in their mouth after handling their pet.

In some cases, testing by your veterinarian can screen your pet for diseases that might be of concern.
Strangely enough, in all my years of practice I have never had anyone ask me if there are diseases that we humans can give our pets. Simply put: yes there are. But that is a topic for another day! 

Note: This article is meant for educational purposes only and in no way represents any particular individual or case. It is not for diagnostic purposes. If your pet is sick, please take him or her to a veterinarian.

See all of Dr. Materi's blogs, click here>>

Like this article? Check out:
Can Ferrets Give People Diseases?, click here>>
Can You Make Your Ferret Sick?, click here>>

Posted: May 12, 2014, 4 a.m. EDT

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