7 diseases your pet could give you

Can your beloved pet make you sick? 

With the increasing number of high-rise residential buildings, more and more people are sharing the same living space as their pets. A large stray population in Malaysia also means people regularly adopt that cute stray kitten or puppy that followed them home. They do this sometimes without being fully aware of the potential diseases these furry animals carry. 

While pets certainly bring their owners joy and companionship, that may not be the only thing they bring into the house. The risk of ‘zoonotic diseases’ – diseases animals transmit to people – has also increased. Common zoonotic diseases in Malaysia can be broadly categorised into 4 causes caused by 4 different categories of pathogens – fungal, parasitic, bacterial, and viral. 


1. Ringworm

This common and easily transmissible fungus infects the hair follicles and causes fur loss in pets. It can infect anyone, and in people, causes a red “ring” that looks like eczema or psoriasis. However, those with a compromised immune system like children, senior citizens, and sick individuals are more likely to contract it. It can be transmitted between animals and people through direct contact or contaminated surfaces such as bedding, carpets, and couches. 

To reduce the risk of disease: 

      • When you bring a new pet home, bring it to the vet for a checkup. 
      • Get your pet’s ringworm infection treated
      • Isolate the infected pet and handle them with latex gloves. Always wash your hands thoroughly after handling them. 
      • Do not allow other family members to handle the pet, especially children and senior citizens. 
      • Clean the surfaces and bedding that your pet uses with common disinfectants such as bleach. 
      • Vacuum the areas your pet is in regularly to remove fur or skin flakes.

    2. Sporotrichosis

    This fungus usually lives on soil and plants. While uncommon, cats can get an infection when they have open wounds and the spores enter the bloodstream. The fungal infection can subsequently be transmitted to other cats or people through scratching or biting. Symptoms in cats include non-healing open wounds, commonly on the paws, nose and ears. Similarly, in people, sporotrichosis can also cause non-healing wounds, and affect the lymphatic system.  

    To reduce the risk of disease: 

        • If your cat has an open wound that is taking a long time to heal, bring it to your vet to get it checked for sporotrichosis. 
        • Handle your cat with gloves, and wash your hands thoroughly afterwards. 
        • Administer any medicine for your cat in food to avoid getting scratched or bitten.


      3. Roundworms and hookworms

      These parasites live in the intestinal tracts of dogs and cats, especially puppies and kittens. They get infected by ingesting the eggs or larvae found in soil that has been contaminated by the faeces of infected animals. Humans get roundworms when we accidentally ingest contaminated soil, sand or plants. Roundworms are generally harmless, but in rare cases, they can damage the nerves and eyes. Hookworm infection, on the other hand, happens when people walk on contaminated soil without shoes on. It can cause itchy skin in people. 

      To reduce the risk of disease: 

          • Get your puppies or kittens on a deworming regime. They can be dewormed starting from 2 weeks onwards. 
          • Practice good hand hygiene after handling pets, after outdoor activities and before eating. 
          • Do not walk in the garden barefoot and use gardening gloves during gardening.
          • Remove pet faeces daily. 

        4. Toxoplasmosis 

        Toxoplasmosis is a parasite found in some prey animals like mice. Cats are then infected when they hunt and eat these infected prey. The parasite is then shed in the cat’s faeces and is passed to people when they accidentally ingest the parasite’s eggs. This happens, for example, when people clean the litter tray of an infected cat and do not wash their hands thoroughly afterwards. Generally, toxoplasma causes severe symptoms in people with compromised immune systems. Even more importantly, pregnant women need to avoid this disease as it can result in birth defects, miscarriage and stillbirth. 

        To reduce the risk of disease: 

            • Do not feed your cat raw meat or let them hunt.
            • Change the cat litter box daily and ensure your hands are washed thoroughly with soap and water afterwards. 
            • If you do gardening, wear gloves in case the soil has been contaminated with cat faeces. Always practice good hand hygiene. 
            • If you are pregnant, let another family member change the cat litter at home and do not get a new cat or handle stray cats.  


          5. Cat scratch disease (CSD)

          Most cats with this bacterial infection do not have any symptoms, but about 40% of cats carry the bacteria Bartonella henselae, most of which are kittens (<1 year old). A person can get CSD when an infected cat scratches or bites him hard enough to break the skin, or if the cat licks any of his open wounds. Symptoms of CSD include infection of the bite/scratch area, fever, headache and general malaise. Lymph nodes near the scratch or bite can become swollen as well.

          To reduce the risk of disease:

          • Trim your cat’s nails regularly
          • Use flea prevention on your cat regularly, especially if it goes outdoors, as this is the main source of infection for cats
          • Vacuum your home weekly to control flea infestation
          • If you get bitten or scratched by a cat, wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water

          6. Leptospirosis

          This bacteria is commonly carried by rats and is shed in the rat’s urine. It typically infects humans and dogs through rat urine-contaminated water, soil or food but it can also infect through cuts and scratches. Leptospirosis symptoms are variable but typically, they are flu-like symptoms. It may also cause jaundice – yellow skin and eyes – in both dogs and humans. The disease can be very severe and life-threatening, especially in younger animals.

          To reduce the risk of disease:

          • Rodent control
          • If your dog goes out regularly and even swims, ensure their leptospirosis vaccinations are updated yearly. (disclaimer: the vaccine does not provide 100% protection as many strains/types of bacteria cause leptospirosis)
          • Wear gloves if handling a dog with leptospirosis, and wash hands thoroughly after handling
          • Do not handle the urine or blood of infected pets.


          7. Rabies

          Known as the Mad Dog Disease, rabies is a fatal viral disease that is transmitted through bites of the infected animal. Almost all mammals can get rabies. There is no cure for this disease, but it is preventable by vaccinations. The disease is under control in peninsular Malaysia but it is still a problem in Sarawak. There have been a total of 48 deaths since the 2017 outbreak.

          To reduce the risk of disease:

          • Vaccinate your pets against rabies.
          • Do not approach any stray dogs or cats that appear aggressive or unusually quiet/dull.
          • Avoid contact with any sort of wildlife, especially bats.
          • If you have been bitten or scratched by an animal, wash immediately with soap and
            water thoroughly. If unsure, visit a doctor to ask about prophylaxis vaccinations.

          In summary, to reduce the risks of zoonotic diseases, keep your pets up-to-date with their vaccinations and parasite preventatives. For cats especially, keep them fully indoors where possible. When in doubt, please consult your regular vet. Practise habits of good hand hygiene and keep your home environment clean. In doing so, you are not only protecting yourself and your family members, but you are also keeping your pets happy and healthy!


          Dr Jan Tie 

          Taipan Veterinary Clinic & Surgery