The recent minor outbreak of monkeypox, spread by pet prairie dogs, seemed more comical than scary: How many people keep a prairie dog at home? But ordinary pets—including dogs, cats, reptiles, and birds—carry many potentially serious diseases that rarely make headlines. Harold Oster, an infectious-diseases specialist at the University of California at San Diego, warns that children, the elderly, and those with weak immune systems are especially susceptible. Fortunately, regular hand washing dramatically reduces your chances of picking up germs from your nonhuman companion. Among the leading pet-borne illnesses:
Salmonellosis: Lizards, snakes, turtles, and frogs can pass the Salmonella bacterium on to their owners. The resulting intestinal disease is especially dangerous to people infected with HIV.
Toxoplasmosis: Sometimes transmitted through soiled kitty litter, this parasitic disease can cause flulike symptoms, but in most people the immune system keeps it in check. Pregnant women should be especially careful because the parasite can infect the fetus and cause brain damage or blindness.
Ringworm: Dogs and cats can pass this fungus on to people; it can also spread from person to person. Ringworm is more annoying than dangerous, causing itchy, crusty scabs on the body or on the scalp in humans.
Cat scratch disease: Kids who play rough with their cats often come down with this bacterial illness, characterized by swollen lymph nodes, fever, and fatigue.
Psittacosis: A bacterium found in the droppings of pet birds—particularly parrots, parakeets, macaws, and cockatiels—causes this difficult-to-diagnose systemic infection, which is often accompanied by pneumonia.