Straight, No Chaser: Sealed with a (Wrong Type of) Kiss – Zoonotic Diseases


It’s interesting how we take animals for granted. Many of us touch and handle them, play with them. Some people keep their pets in their faces, allowing them to kiss and lick them. Do you ever think about where they’ve been and whether they are ill and contagious? Would you be surprised if I told you that approximately 60% of the bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms that cause human disease originates from animals?


That’s right. There are many diseases that animals have that can be transmitted to humans. These groups of diseases are called zoonoses. It’s at least worth giving it some thought; many of these diseases don’t even require direct contact with the affected animal. Even more concerning is the fact that about 75% of newly emergent infectious diseases affecting humans are of animal origin.
We spend a lot of time in places where infected animals and insects may exist. Besides exposures in relatively exotic areas such as farms, woods, nature parks and petting zoos, simpler environments such as pet stores, fairs, schools and childcare facilities may also prove to be risky.


Many different types of animals pose these risks, including rodents, amphibians, live poultry, reptiles, insects and an assortment of domestic and wild animals. Here are a few examples (but not an exhaustive list) of how disease may spread that have been particularly common in the news of late.

  • Many animals carry rabies, including bats, raccoons, foxes, skunks, wolves, coyotes, cattle, monkeys, mongooses and dogs.
  • Reptiles such as turtles, iguanas and snakes can transmit Salmonella, a prominent cause of food poisoning.
  • Handling your cat’s kitty litter (or otherwise handling stool) can transmit toxoplasmosis, an infection that can be deadly to those with weakened immune systems or to unborn children.
  • West Nile has been in the news every year this millennium, causing over 1.5 million infections in humans since 1999.
  • Deer and deer mice carry ticks that can lead to Lyme disease, a bacterial infection involving a rash, fever, chills, body aches and possible arthritis, neurological and cardiac disorders.
  • Other common infections caused by these exposures include anthrax, dengue, Ebola hemorrhagic fever, E. coli infection, malaria, Plague and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

If you’re a good pet owner (and otherwise healthy), you shouldn’t have to worry about this much. Simple steps such as keeping your pets’ shots up to date, keeping their play areas clean, avoiding direct contact with wildlife and maintaining basic hygiene measures such as hand washing after contact sufficiently lowers your risk. Here are a few additional tips:

  • Keep tabs on your kids to ensure they wash their hands properly and avoid thumb-sucking, eating and pacifier use after animal contact and before cleaning up.
  • Use insect repellents that contain 20% or more DEET on the exposed skin and be generous with it when in risky areas.
  • Use products that contain repellents (such as permethrin) on your clothing and gear, such as boots, pants, socks and tents.
  • Look for and remove ticks from your and your children’s bodies.
  • Limit mosquito breeding grounds around your home by getting rid of items that hold still water.

Feel free to ask any questions you may have on this topic.

Order your copy of Dr. Sterling’s new book Behind The Curtain: A Peek at Life from within the ER at, iTunes, Amazon, Barnes and Nobles and wherever books are sold.
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