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Zoonotic Diseases

Zoonotic diseases (or zoonoses) are infections that can be spread between animals and people. This includes diseases carried by ticks and mosquitoes. They are caused by many different things, ranging from diseases caused by microscopic bacteria and viruses to large parasites such as worms and fleas. Some zoonotic diseases make both animals and people sick. Some do not make animals sick but can make people sick.

While these diseases have a risk, the bond that people develop with their animals has been shown to have many health benefits for people, including promoting physical activity, lowering stress, and promoting happiness.

There are many different ways you can reduce zoonotic disease risks for yourself and your family. This includes practicing good hygiene around animals, taking your pets to a veterinarian for regular visits, avoiding contact with wildlife, and learning how to spot the different diseases animals can give to people.

Practice Good Hygiene
The best way to protect yourself and your family from zoonotic diseases is practicing good hand hygiene This is as simple as washing your hands for the amount of time it take to sing the “Happy Birthday” song!

Some zoonoses are transmitted through a fecal-oral cycle. This means that fecal material (poop) from an animal is accidently placed in a person’s mouth, most commonly because of a lack of hand washing. Practicing good hand hygiene prevents many zoonoses. You should always thoroughly wash your hands:

  • After interacting with your pet (playing, petting, etc.)
  • After cleaning up after animals (picking up dog poop, cleaning cat litter boxes, cleaning aquariums, etc.)
  • Before preparing food or eating after you have handled animals

In addition to hand washing, adults should always supervise children when they are around animals. Children typically do not have the same level of hygiene as adults. This makes it more likely for them to accidently place “dirty” hands in their mouths.

Take your Pets to the Veterinarian Regularly
Keeping your pets healthy also helps keep you and your family healthy. All pets should remain current on recommended preventative care. This includes working with your veterinarian to keep your pet updated on all recommended vaccines, parasite prevention, flea prevention, and tick prevention. Additionally, in DC it is required by law that all dogs, cats, and ferrets in the district are vaccinated against rabies.

  • To help residents comply with this law, the DC Health Animal Services Program offers free annual vaccination clinics throughout the city. DC dog licenses are also available for sale at these clinics.
  • Clinics are scheduled periodically throughout the year. Call (202) 535-2323 for more information.

Cleaning Up Animal Waste
In addition to hand washing, cleaning up well after animals can help prevent zoonoses. You can take the following steps to reduce the chances of getting a disease from your pets:

  • Keep pets and their supplies out of the kitchen.
  • Disinfect pet habitats and supplies outside the house when possible.
  • Never clean pet supplies in the kitchen sink, food preparation areas, or the bathroom sink.
  • Remove your dog’s poop from your yard and public places by using a bag, and dispose of it in proper areas.
  • Keep children away from areas that might contain dog or cat poop.
  • Cover play sand boxes so cats do not use them as a litter box.
  • Clean your cat’s litter box daily to lower the chances of exposure to harmful parasites. Pregnant women should avoid cleaning a cat’s litter box if possible.

If you find wild animals living on your property, you need to take special precautions if cleaning up after them as they may be carrying zoonotic diseases. For example, raccoons can have an intestinal parasite (Baylisascaris) in their poop that is deadly to people, and rodents can carry a virus (Hantavirus) that can be fatal if a person breathes it in. Furthermore, bats can carry the rabies virus. Click the links below to learn how to safely clean up after raccoons or rodents and how to safely remove a bat:

Diseases animals can give to people (zoonoses)

Every animal normally carries something that is considered zoonotic and can pose a risk for humans. For most people, these zoonoses pose very little risk. This risk can be further reduced by following the advice listed above. However, some groups of people are at higher risk of getting zoonotic diseases. This includes children younger than 5, adults older than 65, and people with weakened immune systems. People in or caring for these groups should not only follow the advice above but also take extra precautions by being more careful to select the right type of pet. For example, young animals are more likely to spread zoonotic diseases than older animals, and therefore older pets might be more appropriate for adoption by these groups. Some pets are also considered high-risk for these groups such as turtles, lizards, snakes and amphibians, and should be avoided.

Below is a list of some zoonotic diseases that can be found in animals and references for more information:

Zoonotic Disease Surveillance in the District of Columbia

DC Health conducts comprehensive disease surveillance at veterinary facilities in DC and is one of the only US jurisdictions to do so. Currently DC Health monitors rates of rabies, influenza, West Nile virus, leptospirosis, Lyme disease, canine parvovirus, feline panleukopenia, and foreign animal diseases in animal populations found in DC. Yearly surveillance reports can be found below:

Special topic: Chagas disease

Chagas disease is a parasitic disease found in Mexico, Central America, and South America. It is mainly found in rural areas where poverty is widespread. It is caused by the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, which can be carried by Kissing bugs (Triatomine Bugs). While Triatomine bugs can be found in the US, they are rare in DC and have not been found to carry Chagas disease. Some other bugs that can be found in DC, such as wheel bugs, can be confused with Triatomine bugs and do not carry Chagas. Furthermore, even in areas of the world where Chagas is commonly found, not all triatomine bugs are infected, and transmission of Chagas disease from an infected bug occurs rarely.

Chagas is not a reportable disease in DC. If you believe you were exposed to Chagas disease while traveling outside of DC, speak to your healthcare provider about testing and potential treatment. Testing is available through private commercial laboratories. The DC Public Health Laboratory does not test for Chagas disease.

Information for Human Healthcare Providers

When treating patients with zoonotic diseases, keep in mind the risk from most diseases can be minimized by following the prevention recommendations highlighted above. The majority of situations do not warrant a person getting rid of a pet. However, always keep in mind that any time an animal bites a person there is a risk of disease as well as public health considerations.

For further guidance on the interaction between patients and animals please refer to the resources below or contact DC Health.

Reporting zoonotic diseases in people

All cases of zoonosis in a person should be reported using DC Reporting and Surveillance Center (DCRC), our online reporting system.

Submit a Notifiable Disease and Condition Case Report Form  using DCRC

Zoonotic Disease Resources for Human Healthcare Providers

Information for Animal Healthcare Providers

While Animal Healthcare Providers should not give direct medical advice to people, it is appropriate for them to make public health recommendations. As human healthcare providers are often not aware of people’s interaction with both pets and wildlife, animal healthcare providers are in a unique position to provide this vital education.

Reporting zoonotic diseases in animals

Animal cases of influenza, West Nile virus, leptospirosis, Lyme disease, canine parvovirus, and feline panleukopenia are reportable to DC Health on a voluntary basis. Any foreign animal disease suspected in an animal in DC is required to be reported.

To report any of these diseases using our online reporting system click the following link: Animal Disease Surveillance System Case Report Form.

Zoonotic Disease Resources for Animal Healthcare Providers

Health Standards for Importing and Exporting Animals

DC Health Contact Information

For more information on Zoonotic Diseases email [email protected].