How Pets Influence Public Health

The bond between people and pets creates positive benefits for almost everyone. Pets keep our minds sharp, our bodies moving, and our hearts full. But when pet health suffers, human health does, too.

It’s important to take care of pets so their immune systems are strong and they live long, healthy lives. A vulnerable pet can be at increased risk for spreading disease, which can affect even the healthiest of owners. Proper pet care starts with recognizing the integration of animal, human, and environmental health strategies.

“Most people are very aware of chocolate toxicity, and grapes and raisins” being a risk factor for household pets, said emergency veterinarian Dr. Ricki Kirsch, “but there are a lot of things we are very much able to tolerate that dogs and cats aren’t.”

How Does Animal and Human Health Overlap?

There are about 7.5 billion people in the world today. Even with declining fertility rates, the United Nations predicts that number will grow to 11.2 billion by 2100 because humans are living longer. One consequence of that rapid population growth is increased contact with domesticated and wild animals. Close contact with animals can be positively transformative to our health and well-being.

Physical Activity

Playing indoors and outdoors with animals can help people achieve low-intensity fitness goals.

Self-Actualization

Taking responsibility for a pet’s well-being helps people find purpose and meaning in the stability of long-term care.

Mental Wellness

Pets can be paired with people who are at risk for depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses to provide compassion and companionship.

Accessibility

Service pets provide guidance and companionship for people with impaired vision or hearing.

Safety

Animals can alert people to potential environmental or physical threats — be it an intruder or risk of seizure — with their behavior vocally or physically.

Emotional Health

Relationships with pets can reduce feelings of loneliness and increase opportunities for socialization, according to the National Institutes of Health’s report on The Power of Pets.

Vascular Health

Spending time with animals is proven to lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels. Studies have shown pets benefit their owners’ cardiac health over time.


However, contact with animals may increase the likelihood of encountering health hazards that can be transmitted.
Allergies

People with sensitive immune systems may develop reactions to specific types of animal dander, saliva, or urine — known as allergens. Though some animals are said to be hypo-allergenic, no animal can be truly free of allergens according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America’s report on pet allergies.

Antibiotic Resistance

Some bacteria can become immune to antibiotic drugs, which can allow for antibiotic-resistant infections like salmonella to spread from pets to people.

Zoonotic Diseases

Diseases that are transferred from animals to humans through contact with an animal’s feces, saliva, or other bodily fluids. Though healthy pets are less likely to carry these diseases, it’s possible for them to become infected if their guardians aren’t taking care of their shared environment.

Bites or Scratches

Without hygiene, bites or scratches from animals can become easily infected or cause serious harm to the guardian.

How Pets Spread Diseases

When transferred from animals to humans, zoonotic diseases can flourish with the spread of bacteria, viruses, or fungi passed between animals and humans during physical contact. In fact, six out of every 10 infections in humans are contracted from an animal, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Examples of common zoonotic diseases include:  

  • Toxoplasmosis
  • Rabies
  • Salmonella
  • Tapeworm
  • Ringworm
  • E. coli

Kirsch said she most commonly treats cats and dogs for diarrhea, skin lesions, and flea infestations, all of which can be transmitted to owners if not properly treated.

It’s important to seek help from a veterinarian as soon as you identify symptoms or unusual behavior from a pet. Getting professional medical attention can ensure pets and people are treated as early and effectively as possible, while contributing to accurate reporting of disease outbreaks.

How People Contract Diseases from Animals

People can become infected with zoonotic diseases even if they are healthy, but special attention should be paid to children under 5, adults over 65, and people who have chronic conditions or weakened immune systems. Here are a few common ways diseases can spread from pets to people according to the American Academy of Family Physicians:

Physical Contact

Touching infected pets without washing hands before and after; unsanitary handling of feces, saliva, or bodily fluids; or interacting with wildlife or exotic animals that have not been vaccinated.

Indirect Contact

Touching surfaces or habitats where animals have been, including beds, litter boxes, and feeding areas.

Vector-Borne

Being bitten by a tick or mosquito that is carrying a disease. A recent report shows tick-borne diseases are on the rise.

Food-Borne

Eating raw or contaminated food that hasn’t been prepared or sanitized properly; or consuming unwashed fruits or vegetables that may be contaminated with animal feces.   

Best Practices for Pet Care

Every pet-guardian relationship is unique, but Kirsch recommends that pet owners base their caregiving choices in evidence-based research and advice from an animal care specialist.

“Raw diets are the main culprit these days for our small animals getting Salmonella,” Kirsch said about common reasons for emergency veterinarian visits. “Just like with anything that’s popular, it’s very easy to jump on the train without doing the appropriate research.” 

In addition to doing your due diligence about appropriate pet food, there are many ways to keep pets and people healthy.

Preventive Care

  • Get vaccinations for pets and people that adhere to a vaccination schedule.
  • Take pets to a veterinarian clinic for regular wellness exams.
  • Talk to a provider about medication to prevent parasites that transmit diseases like heartworm to dogs, cats or ferrets.
  • Consult an animal care specialist before administering antibiotics to an already healthy pet to avoid antibiotic resistance and the spread of disease.
  • Prevent and care for tick or mosquito bites immediately.
  • Handle pet waste cleanly, washing hands and surfaces immediately.
  • Identify house plants or compost materials that may be toxic for pets’ health.
  • Look for skin lesions, itching, or irritation; treat them as soon as possible.
  • Support humane rescue organizations so they can continue to provide safe living conditions for pets.

Family Safety and Protection

  • Keep homes clean by washing surfaces and linens shared with pets.
  • Look for signs of stress or fatigue in pets such as tucked ears and tails or aggression toward others, and take thoughtful precautions when approaching them. Explain these boundaries to children to avoid bites and scratches.
  • Include children in pet care practices when age-appropriate, including cleaning litter boxes, going for walks, or grooming.
  • Pick up and properly dispose of pet waste at home and when in public.
  • Research changes to pet diets, especially the use of raw food or food intended for humans.

Emergency Preparedness

  • Identify safe care options for pets in the event of a natural disaster. Pets that get left behind become a health and sanitation burden for overwhelmed shelters, and experience a decreased quality of life.
  • Adhere to legal and health practices for keeping exotic pets, which may be at risk for spreading uncommon diseases. Check the CDC website for legal and health information about caring for animals and identifying risk factors.
  • Some animals may develop infections that are not communicable to people. Still, it is important for people to clean any spaces inhabited by pets.

In the event of any urgent concern, pet guardians should get help as soon as possible:

An Integrated Approach to Community Education

As stewards of community health and wellness, professionals and volunteers can serve as a resource for pet guardians and their beloved animals. They may find opportunities to support their communities in any of the following environments:

  • Veterinary hospitals
  • Parks service programs
  • Pet stores and rescue organizations
  • State public health offices
  • Nonprofit animal rights organizations
  • Online forums dedicated to animal care

Public health professionals can support community health with regular communication, including:

Pet guardians and public health professionals may consult the following sources if interested in more information about animal and environmental health:

Citation for this content: The MPH online program from Baylor University’s Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences.