Many people treat their dogs and cats like family members, sharing beds and couches and sometimes even food—which raises the question: Can you get sick from your pet? Though the risk is small, it’s possible.
Some of the diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans (referred to as zoonoses) include cryptosporidiosis (a diarrheal illness transmitted through feces) and toxoplasmosis (a parasitic disease transmitted from cats through feces). You can pick up ringworm (a fungal disease), from the skin of an infected dog or cat, leptospirosis (passed from the urine of an infected dog), or cat scratch disease (primarily from kittens). If your pet has diarrhea due to Salmonella or Campylobacter, you can become infected if you have contact with its feces and don’t wash your hands. Reptiles, baby chicks and “pocket animals” (like hamsters and mice) present a much greater Salmonella risk, however.
It’s also conceivable that you could pick up a respiratory infection from a dog or cat, since a few viruses that cause such infections are not species-specific.
What about the other way around—can you make your pet sick? There are indeed reports of human infections being transmitted to pets (reverse zoonoses or anthroponoses). For example, a man treated for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) passed the infection to his dog, according to a letter in Emerging Infectious Diseases in 2009. And there have been at least a dozen reports of humans transmitting H1N1 influenza virus to their cats and other pets.
Pet precautions: You’re far more likely to get sick from another person than from your pet, but you should still take precautions, especially if you have a weakened immune system or are otherwise at high risk (frail elderly people, pregnant women and young children). Always wash your hands after handling pets or cleaning up after them; if possible, don’t handle a pet that has diarrhea; control fleas and worms; keep your cat’s nails trimmed; and take your pets to the vet for regular checkups and vaccinations. It may be hard to resist (or control), but don’t let a pet lick your mouth or an open wound or cut—and don’t kiss your pet on its mouth.