As much as we all enjoy seeing out native wildlife in gardens and parks, they may not always be the
innocuous neighbours we have come to love – and can bring some dangerous diseases with them. Many
animals have the potential to be a source of disease for other, unrelated species, including us humans.
Such diseases are known as “zoonoses” or diseases communicable from animals to humans and some of
these can present a significant threat to us as pet owners and/or our pets.
The recent emergence of Covid 19 in Asia, which has now become a worldwide epidemic, has once again
highlighted the potential risks that wildlife can bring to us. It appears that the current outbreak, similar to
the related SARS and MERS coronaviruses of the recent decades have each spread to humans from
wildlife – most likely pangolins, civet cats and camels. Indeed the 1930’s song “mad dogs and
englishmen go out in the midday sun” refers to the link between rabies, animals and man and dates back
to the 1800’s, and this fatal disease still circulates in many parts of the world between many carnivores
such as wolves, foxes, dogs and still kills approximately 55 000 people annually. There is no current evidence that our pets can suffer from or spread the COVID-19 virus to people, although they can become exposed there is no evidence of active disease.
We do not have to go to exotic places to be exposed to such threats however and our own pets and
wildlife can be a source of illness, to us, our families and other animals. This is one of the driving forces
behind many preventive healthcare measures which are recommended to you by your vet healthcare team.
These serve both to prevent disease in our pets but also illnesses for you and your family and include also
PET Passport conditions for international travel.
Weils disease is a potentially fatal complication following exposure to leptospirosis in people.
Leptospirosis (lepto) poses a significant threat to our dogs (and cattle), especially unvaccinated pets or
those whose vaccine cover has lapsed. For this reason a full primary course of vaccinations is
recommended for all puppies and new pets, followed by regular, annual boosters. This disease is carried
in the main by wild rats and can be contracted from still or stagnant water contaminated with rat urine.
Highly fatal in non-vaccinated dogs, exposure to urine, vomit or other fluids can also spread this to
humans, with a risk of severe liver and kidney complications with a high mortality rate.
Roundworms from pets, especially puppies, is linked to blindness in children. The eggs take time (often
weeks) to mature before becoming infectious to people so good housekeeping and daily picking up and
careful disposal of faeces will prevent infection in people, as well as reducing spread between our pets
and is more important than just keeping your shoes clean while out walking! Exposure to aged faeces and
developed larvae from dogs (and cats) puts humans at risk of ‘toxocariasis’, where migrating worms can
affect the eye, or more rarely other organs such as the brain, liver or lungs. Regular deworming of puppies
and kittens will reduce the number of eggs passed, as well as reducing disease in pets as a result of the
intestinal worms. Never use dog faeces in a compost bin which is to be used for food crops as the matured
eggs can survive in the environment and keep children’s sandpits etc covered.
Similarly, Toxoplasma from cat faeces can pose a danger to pregnant women or immunocompromised
people, but disposal within the first 24hrs and prior to maturity does limit this risk (ideally cat litter
should be emptied daily by someone else, or wearing gloves as a minimum precaution).
Other common ‘zoonotic’ diseases from pets and wildlife include: hookworm (intestinal worms which
migrate through the skin of the feet in dogs and humans); scabies (sarcoptic mange from foxes to dogs
and humans); fleas (often happy to bite us humans as well as our pets); ringworm (most species including
many pets, sheep, cattle and horses); tuberculosis (cattle, deer, badgers, to man, also occasionally spread
from humans to pets!); Lyme disease (ticks to dogs or humans); many food poisoning cases such as
Salmonella, E coli, and Cryptosporidia (livestock faeces/slurry – avoided by careful food preparation
including washing of salads and thorough cooking of meat, hand hygiene and water treatment);
tapeworms (spread between many species from exposure to raw/undercooked meat or faeces); lungworm
(passed from slugs to dogs and foxes).
Your pet healthcare team are always happy to advise you on the steps you can take to keep your pets and
family safe and sound, especially if there are young, elderly or immunocompromised members of your
household. Regular vaccinations and anti-parasite treatments are recommended to help prevent a wide
range of uncomfortable or dangerous conditions and will be tailored to meet your pets individual needs
which may vary depending on your pets lifestyle.
Lindsey Edwards is the owner and chief Veterinary Surgeon at Woodview Veterinary Centre in Lixnaw Co. Kerry. As a regular feature writer on all animal health matters, Lindsey also runs a busy veterinary clinic dealing with all pet medical and surgical needs. For any queries regarding your pet, please see www.woodviewvets.ie, or call 068 40796 during business hours.