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Pets and Infectious Diseases in Children

How can you prevent the spread of infectious disease from your pet?

Correct care of your pet may prevent the spread of infection or illness to household members. To prevent the spread of disease from your pet, be careful to:

  • Keep your pet's vaccines up-to-date.

  • See a veterinarian regularly with your pet for health checkups.

  • Keep your pet's bedding and living area clean.

  • Feed your pet a balanced diet.

  • Don't give your pet raw foods or allow it to drink out of the toilet.

  • Clean cat litter boxes every day. Pregnant women should not touch cat litter. It may contain infectious diseases that cause birth defects, including toxoplasmosis.

  • Wash your hands well after touching animals, cleaning up animal waste, or handling pet food. Your children should do the same. Lather your hands with soap and wash hands for at least 20 seconds using clean, running water (warm or cold). If clean water is not available, use alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Rub the sanitizer over all areas of the hands and fingers until your hands are dry (about 20 seconds).

  • Washing hands is especially important after handling reptiles. These animals may harbor a bacteria called salmonella. Salmonella can cause salmonellosis. This disease leads to diarrhea, fever, and abdominal (belly) cramps. Most people who get salmonella will have symptoms that last from 4 to 7 days and will get better without treatment.

What is the relationship between wild animals and infectious diseases?

Wild animals and insects can carry some very serious diseases. These include rabies, tetanus, Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, hantavirus, and the plague. Animal bites and scratches, even when they are minor, may become infected and spread bacteria to other parts of the body. Whether the bite is from a family pet or an animal in the wild, scratches and bites may carry disease. Cat scratches, for example, even from a kitten, may carry "cat scratch disease." It's a type of bacterial infection. Bites and/or scratches that break the skin are even more likely to become infected.

What immediate care is needed for animal bites?

  • Wash the wound with soap and water under pressure from a faucet. Don't scrub. It can bruise the tissue.

  • If the bite or scratch is bleeding, put pressure on it with a clean bandage or towel to stop the bleeding.

  • Dry the wound and cover it with a sterile dressing. Don't use tape or butterfly bandages. They can trap harmful bacteria in the wound.

  • Call your child's healthcare provider right away for guidance in reporting the attack. Your child's healthcare provider will decide whether more treatment, such as antibiotics, a tetanus booster, or rabies vaccine, is needed. This call needs to be made even if it looks like a minor injury, and even if the animal involved is your pet or a neighbor's pet. 

  • If possible, find the animal that inflicted the wound. Some animals need to be captured, confined, and watched for rabies. Don't try to capture the animal yourself. Instead, call the nearest animal warden or animal control office in your area.

  • If the animal can't be found, if the animal was a high-risk species (such as a skunk or bat), or the animal attack was unprovoked, the victim may need a series of rabies shots.

What is rabies?

Rabies is a widespread, viral infection of warm-blooded animals. It's caused by a virus in the Rhabdoviridae family. It attacks the nervous system. Once symptoms develop, it's 100% fatal in animals.

In North America, rabies happens primarily in skunks, raccoons, foxes, and bats. In some areas, these wild animals infect domestic cats, dogs, and livestock. In the U.S., cats are more likely than dogs to be rabid. Generally, rabies is rare in small rodents, such as beavers, chipmunks, squirrels, rats, mice, or hamsters. Rabies is also rare in rabbits. In the mid-Atlantic states, where rabies is increasing, raccoons and woodchucks (also known as groundhogs) can also be rabid.

How does rabies happen?

The rabies virus is most often passed on through the bite of a rabid animal. It travels to the central nervous system. Once the infection is established in the brain, the virus travels down the nerves from the brain and multiplies in different organs.

The salivary glands are most important in the spread of rabies from one animal to another. When an infected animal bites another animal, the rabies virus is spread through the infected animal's saliva. Scratches by claws of rabid animals are also dangerous because these animals lick their claws.

Rabies can be prevented. Cats, dogs, and certain other animals can be vaccinated to prevent rabies. In people who have been bitten, scratched, or had certain other close contact with a potentially rabid animal, getting a vaccine as soon as possible can prevent rabies. The exposed person may also be given other treatments to prevent rabies and other infections from the animal.

What are the symptoms of rabies?

The incubation period in humans from the time of exposure to the start of illness can range anywhere from 5 days to more than a year. But the average incubation period is about 2 months. Each person may have different symptoms. Initially, there are no symptoms. When symptoms do develop, they may include:

  • Pain, numbness, and tingling around the wound site 

  • Low-grade fever

  • Headache

  • Appetite loss

  • Intense thirst, but drinking will cause painful throat spasms

  • Restlessness

  • Hyperactivity

  • Disorientation, confusion, and anxiety

  • Seizures

These symptoms may look like other health conditions. Always talk with your child's healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

Online Medical Reviewer: Barry Zingman MD
Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Rita Sather RN
Date Last Reviewed: 5/1/2022
© 2000-2022 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.