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How People Can Make Pets Sick

Influenza and herpes are just two ailments that people can pass on to pets.

Leticia Materi, PhD, DVM
Posted: May 26, 2014, 5 p.m. EDT

ferret on table
© Courtesy Leticia Materi
Ferrets can catch flu from people or other ferrets, and they can pass it to people or other ferrets.

In my last column, I touched on the topic of zoonoses, diseases that spread from animals to humans. This would include illnesses such as Salmonella, ringworm and rabies. I also mentioned that there are some illnesses that we humans can pass on to our pets. Many people are completely shocked when I tell them that. The transmission of disease from humans to animal is sometimes called reverse zoonosis.

A fairly common illness that people unknowingly transmit to their pet ferrets is influenza (also known as flu). Influenza is the result of a viral infection. In humans, infections with the influenza viruses can cause a wide variety of symptoms including fever, chills, sore muscles, sore throat, runny nose, coughing, fatigue and general discomfort. Influenza is the result of infection by one of a number of viruses in the family Orthomyxoviridae.

The spread of flu from humans to ferrets is similar to the spread of flu from person to person. Usually the virus is transmitted directly in secretions from the respiratory tract (i.e., sneezes) or indirectly from contaminated objects, such as food dishes or hands. Ferrets that contract the influenza virus present with varying signs of upper respiratory disease: sneezing, nasal discharge, lethargy and lack of appetite. Both very young and very old ferrets tend to develop more severe disease. These cases are often diagnosed by a history of exposure to a person with flu. Ferrets with flu virus can spread it to other ferrets as well as to humans, so quarantine and good hygiene is strongly recommended.

Uncomplicated influenza infections in ferrets are most often treated with symptomatic care, such as fluids and syringe feeding. Antibiotics don’t work on viruses. Occasionally, antibiotics may be used if a secondary bacterial infection is suspected. Most influenza infections in ferrets tend to resolve on their own in one to two weeks.

Another reverse zoonosis that most people are not aware of is the transmission of human herpes simplex virus to rabbits. Rabbits infected with this virus tend to present with the sudden onset of neurological problems: circling, poor coordination, weakness, poor balance, teeth grinding and seizures. The clinical signs are severe with rapid deterioration. There is no cure for this disease in rabbits, and it is often fatal. It is recommended that humans with active herpes-related cold sores or mouth lesions avoid contact with rabbits.

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.

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

Posted: May 26, 2014, 5 p.m. EDT

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