Zoonotic diseases, those that can be transferred from animals to humans, should always be kept in mind when working with animals.  Although there aren’t many of them, some can be life threatening if not recognized in time.

Perhaps the most feared zoonotic disease is rabies.  In animals the symptoms include changes in personality (ie a wild animal appears to want affection, or a domestic animal, usually very docile suddenly becomes aggressive), lack of fear, inability to swallow.  It is 100% fatal if not treated in time. If there is any question as to whether an animal you encountered was rabid, seek medical treatment immediately.

Most other zoonotic diseases are parasitic in nature.  These include, but are not limited, to the following:

  • Worms – these intestinal parasites are transmitted through feces or contact with soil or other items that have come in contact with infected feces. There are several types of worms, including hookworms and roundworms that are common in both domestic and wild species.  All contact with fecal matter should be avoided.
  • Cryptosporidiosis – this is a parasite that lives in water.  It is most often contracted by exposure to water that has been soiled by fecal matter. The symptoms of a cryptosporidiosis include frequent bouts of watery diarrhea, stomach cramping and if untreated, life threatening dehydration
  • Lyme disease – although the organism that causes this disease is not a parasite, the means of transmission is. Lyme disease is carried by ticks that infect their host when they bite them. Symptoms of Lyme Disease in humans include fever, general malaise and a rash at the site of infection.  Sometimes the symptoms are minimal, but chronic, untreated Lyme Disease can lead to organ damage.
  • Toxoplasmosis – this disease is not parasitic. It is most often associated with the handling of cat litter, but the fact is that any warm blooded animal can carry it and the handling of raw meat has been known to transmit it.  In most cases of human infection the disease is almost asymptomatic, however, pregnant women need to be especially careful when handling animal feces as the disease can cause great damage to a developing fetus.

If you suspect you are suffering from an illness contracted through contact with animals be sure to inform your doctor when seeking treatment.  Zoonotic diseases may not be their first thought and being unaware may lead to misdiagnoses or delay in receiving proper treatment.

Animals in shelters are at greater risk of carrying zoonotic diseases because of many factors, often in part because animals enter shelters without having had vaccinations and consistent veterinary care.  Roaming on streets, contact with other infected animals, and lack of sanitary conditions all carry potential risks.  Training volunteers to notice and take action when they suspect that an animal is sick will decrease the risk of spreading these diseases to humans and other animals.

Shelters should include policies and procedures for volunteers to take notice of behaviors that may signal zoonotic diseases.  Making sure that volunteers understand what to look for and what to do about it will keep risks minimal to visitors, workers, and other animals.  Workers trained to notice scratching, skin lesions, open sores, loss of hair, and other skin-related problems may be able to detect problems such as sarcoptic mange and ringworm.  Parasites such as roundworm and giardia may be treated and the spread of the disease curbed dramatically if volunteers know to isolate an infected animal right away.  Quick treatment will prevent contamination of kennels, visitor rooms, and exam areas, and will alert other workers of the need for care in handling the infected animal before it becomes a threat to humans.

Proper sanitation and cleanliness are difficult in a shelter.  Being sure that workers are especially sensitive to animals that are sick will go a long way limiting the number of humans who handle the animal, as well as the exposure of healthy animals to the illness.  Protective clothing can keep sick animals from scratching workers, and protect the worker’s skin from infected lesions and parasites.  A procedure to notify other workers of the sick animal’s status will also help volunteers understand the need for cleanliness and isolation until the animal is properly treated and cleared.  Clearly no animal shelter wants to adopt out a sick animal, or expose an adopting family to an illness  It’s well worth the time and effort to have safety procedures in place.