Zoonotic. I bet you have heard this term many times, and you probably think it means that you got sick from your pet (or other animal) or you maybe got your pet sick, right? Let’s clear this up.


A zoonotic disease (also known as zoonoses), is caused by germs that can spread between animals and people. So, bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi carried by animals can be spread to humans in some cases. This is what a zoonotic disease actually is. Of the more than 1,400 diseases found in humans, about 60% of those are zoonotic. Fun fact:  the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that six out of every 10 known diseases are spread from animals, and three out of every four new or emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals. Diseases can range from mild to severe and may even be fatal in some cases.


What does this mean for the veterinary community?

Veterinarians work directly with animals, so exposure to zoonotic disease is higher in this group of professionals. Direct contact with infected animals’ saliva, blood, urine and feces is a valid concern. Indirect contact with areas where animals live or walk about freely as well as surfaces animals touch may be contaminated by germs also. Fleas, mosquitoes and ticks are able to pass disease to animals that can pass to humans as well (vector-borne). Waterborne disease can be caused in humans that drink or come into contact with water that has been contaminated by the feces or urine from infected animals. Last, but certainly not the least of worries, foodborne illness. Every year people get sick from contaminated food such as unpasteurized (raw) milk, undercooked meat or eggs or raw fruit or vegetables that are contaminated and have not been washed properly.


Who is the most at risk?

While anyone can get sick from a zoonotic disease, some people are more at risk than others.  These include young children (those under 5 years old), people older than 65, anyone with a weakened immune system and pregnant women. 


The take home message.

Protect yourself from zoonotic diseases. Wash your hands with soap and water right after coming in contact with animals, even if you didn’t touch them. If soap and water are not available, use a hand sanitizer that is alcohol-based (at least 60%). Use something to prevent bites from mosquitoes, ticks and fleas. Avoid scratches and bites from animals, and make sure your pets and livestock are vaccinated. Handle and prepare food safely.


Jackie Smith, PhD, MSc, MACE, Dipl AVES, is an epidemiologist based at the University of Kentucky Veterinary Diagnostic Lab. Emma Adam, DVM, PhD, DACVIM, DACVS is based at the University of Kentucky Gluck Equine Research Center and Veterinary Diagnostic Lab and is responsible for research and veterinary industry liaison.