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Keep Your Family Safe From Animal-Borne Diseases

Some of these, like hantaviruses and Lyme disease, are on the rise

By Dr. Frieda Wiley

Three out of every five new sicknesses in humans come from either animal or bug contact, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. While not every animal or insect encounter will make you sick, tens of thousands of Americans have become ill. Some of these interactions can result in major illness.

People who are 55 and older, have weakened immune systems, or have chronic illnesses like diabetes, high blood pressure, or asthma are more likely to become sick. This can be a major cause for concern if you’re worried about your aging parent or happen to be 55 years of age or older.

Illnesses like toxoplasmosis, cat scratch fever, and ringworm are quite commonly associated with animal contact, but these aren’t the only diseases you can catch from insects or animals. In fact, there are some lesser-known diseases that are becoming more commonplace.

What to Watch Out For

For example, various hantaviruses, which are carried by mice, have been on the rise in the United States. The most recent ones were first documented about 20 years ago.

“Mouse infestation is a concern,”says Dr. Emilio Debess, state public health veterinarian for the state of Oregon.

“Mice live in walls, underneath [trailers or raised] houses, in garages. The virus is shed through the urine and stool of the mouse. When mice [nest], their urine becomes concentrated,” Debess explains. “People inhale the fumes from the urine containing the virus, and this causes lung disease."

The virus can also be transmitted through rodent bites, and researchers believe that people can also contract the virus if they touch their nose or mouth after having come into contact with objects that have been contaminated with mouse urine, droppings, or saliva.

“People infected with the hantavirus will get a very severe cold or flu in about 24 hours and their lungs fill up with fluid,” Debess says. “Some of the patients who contract the virus will die.”

Lyme Disease More Common

Also, certain animal or insect-borne diseases that have been around for a while — like Lyme disease —are on the rise. In fact, the Companion Animal Parasite Council (CAPC) forecasts that cases of Lyme disease are expected to rise in the Pacific Northwest, the Ohio River Valley, and New England states this year.

While Lyme disease is still a major concern in Minnesota and Wisconsin, the CAPC anticipates that the number of cases of the condition in these states will be lower than it was in 2014.

And unfortunately, Lyme disease is not the only disease ticks carry.

“Through a tick bite, you can actually be exposed to multiple pathogens — not just Lyme disease,” Debess points out. “On average, a tick carries at least three different diseases [like] Rocky Mountain fever and ehrlichiosis. However, the others are very treatable conditions.”

Some of the diseases transmitted by ticks vary by the region of the country and the kinds of ticks you’d most likely find in those areas. For example, tularemia, a disease caused by bites from dog ticks, has been found in every state except Hawaii.

The CDC reports that eight cases of heartland virus, thought to be caused by the Lone star tick, were identified in Tennessee and Missouri last year. Meanwhile, bites from the blacklegged tick found in Midwestern states, northeastern states, and along the Pacific coast are responsible for diseases like anaplasmosis.


Dog Park Danger

Debess and his colleagues are currently doing research on what he says is an increase in parasite diseases found at dog parks – especially as a result of animal feces. He states that people become sick from handling pet waste without proper hand washing and that this often causes stomach and digestive issues like diarrhea or vomiting.

He also says they have found a surprising number of disease-causing parasites like Cryptosporidium (“Crypto”), roundworms, and Giardia in these parks and that they plan to publish their findings in the near future.

So, what can you do to protect yourself, your family and your pets?

  • Vaccinate your pets against preventable diseases. “This includes rabies because animal do bite — sometimes unintentionally, [other times] out of fear,” Debess says.
  • Have your pets treated regularly for parasites. “Animals like cats can be especially fastidious about cleaning themselves, but the parasites are [found] in the stool in the animals.”
  • Protect your pets from fleas and ticks. The CDC recommends checking your pets daily for ticks and asking your veterinarian about ways to prevent ticks. “You can take your animal to a national park somewhere, and they get infected with fleas,” Debess says. Then the fleas or ticks on your pet may bite you and cause you to get sick.
  • “Pick up Pet Poop Promptly.” The CDC advises people to practice these four “P’s” to help prevent the spread of such parasitic infections and other diseases in humans. The agency also emphasizes the importance of properly discarding your pet’s waste. But it doesn’t stop there. It may sound obvious to wash your hands after disposing of your pet’s waste, but Debess says there many illnesses than occur from improper handwashing after either handling or coming into contact with pet waste.
  • Practice proper hygiene. Handwashing and other hygienic practices may seem like obvious habits to develop, but Debess says it cannot be stressed enough. And it doesn’t just apply to what you should do after you’ve finished handling pet stool. “Wash your hands after handling pet stool, handling animals, or handling chicken you bought at the grocery store that’s raw in your kitchen,” Debess says.

So, while some pet-borne illnesses are on the rise, by practicing good habits and a little planning, you can keep help keep your loved ones — both family and pets — safe.


Dr. Frieda Wiley is a licensed pharmacist and medical writer. Read More
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