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Pets and Infectious Diseases

Proper care of your pet may prevent him or her from becoming ill and infecting the household. Further, to prevent the spread of disease from your pet, take the following precautions:

  • Keep your pet's immunizations current.

  • See a veterinarian regularly with your pet for health checkups.

  • Keep your pet's bedding and living area clean.

  • Feed your pet a balanced diet and avoid having your pet eat raw foods or drink out of the toilet.

  • Clean cat litter boxes every day. Pregnant women should avoid touching cat litter, because it may contain bacteria, viruses, or parasites that can lead to infectious diseases that cause birth defects, including toxoplasmosis.

  • Wash your hands thoroughly after touching animals or cleaning up animal waste.

  • Washing hands is especially important after handling reptiles, because reptiles may harbor a bacteria called salmonella. Salmonella can cause salmonellosis, which is characterized by up to a week of diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps. Most people who contract salmonella will have symptoms that last from four to seven days and will recover without treatment.

Wild animals and infectious diseases

Wild animals and insects can be carriers for some very serious diseases, including rabies, tetanus, Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, hantavirus, and the plague. Animal bites and scratches, even when they are minor, may become infected and spread bacteria to other parts of the body. Whether the bite is from a family pet or an animal in the wild, scratches and bites may carry disease. Cat scratches, for example, even from a kitten, may carry "cat scratch disease," a bacterial infection. Bites and/or scratches that break the skin are even more likely to become infected.

Immediate care for animal bites

  • Wash the wound with soap and water under pressure from a faucet, but do not scrub, as this bruises the tissue.

  • If the bite or scratch is bleeding, apply pressure to it with a clean bandage or towel to stop the bleeding.

  • Dry the wound and cover it with a sterile dressing, but do not use tape or butterfly bandages to bring the edges of the wound together, as they can trap harmful bacteria in the wound.

  • Call your doctor or health care professional for guidance in reporting the attack and to determine whether additional treatment, such as antibiotics, a tetanus booster, or rabies vaccination is needed.

  • If possible, locate the animal that inflicted the wound. Some animals need to be captured, confined, and observed for rabies. Do not try to capture the animal yourself; instead, contact the nearest animal warden or animal control office in your area.

  • If the animal cannot be found, if the animal was a high-risk species or the animal attack was unprovoked, the victim may need a series of rabies shots.

What is rabies?

Rabies is a widespread, viral infection of warm-blooded animals. Caused by a virus in the Rhabdoviridae family, it attacks the nervous system and, once symptoms develop, is virtually 100 percent fatal in animals.

In North America, rabies occurs primarily in skunks, raccoons, foxes, and bats. In some areas, these wild animals infect domestic cats, dogs, and livestock. In the United States, cats are more likely than dogs to be rabid. Generally, rabies is rare in small rodents such as beavers, chipmunks, squirrels, rats, mice, or hamsters. Rabies is also rare in rabbits. In the mid-Atlantic states, where rabies is increasing in raccoons, woodchucks (groundhogs) can be rabid.

How does rabies occur?

The rabies virus enters the body via the animal's saliva either through a cut or scratch, or through mucous membranes (such as the lining of the mouth and eyes), and travels to the central nervous system. Once the infection is established in the brain, the virus travels down the nerves from the brain and multiplies in different organs.

The salivary glands and organs are most important in the spread of rabies from one animal to another. When an infected animal bites another animal, the rabies virus is transmitted through the infected animal's saliva. Scratches by claws of rabid animals are also dangerous because these animals lick their claws.

What are the symptoms of rabies?

The incubation period in humans from the time of exposure to the onset of illness can range anywhere from five days to more than a year, although the average incubation period is about two months. The following are the most common symptoms of rabies. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Pain, tingling, or numbness around the wound site 

  • Low-grade fever

  • Headache

  • Appetite loss

  • Intense thirst, but drinking will induce painful throat spasms

  • Restlessness

  • Hyperactivity

  • Disorientation

  • Seizures

Symptoms of rabies may resemble other medical conditions and problems. Always consult your doctor for a diagnosis.