Pet Articles

Zoonosis in Exotic Pets

You most likely already know that humans can catch diseases from wild animals. You’ve probably also given thought to the diseases that we can get through our interactions with pets. However, if you own, or are thinking about owning, an exotic pet, you should take into consideration the unique diseases associated with them. Just like dogs and cats, exotic pets have some zoonotic diseases (diseases that are transmissible between humans and animals). Owning an exotic pet does not put you at a greater risk for a zoonotic infection than owning a dog or cat; it just puts you at risk for different types of diseases. With good hygiene and proper care, there is a very low risk of obtaining disease from your exotic pet. However, it is a good idea to be aware of the potential infectious risk your pet poses.

In this article we will cover some common and some rare diseases that can be transmitted to humans from their exotic pets. These diseases should be taken into consideration before purchasing an exotic pet. As with all pets, special caution should be taken in households with children or immuno-compromised people. Whenever you go to the doctor with a sickness, you should always mention that you have pets. Although severe sickness caused by a zoonosis is uncommon, knowing that you have pets is a critical piece of information for your physician.

Salmonellosis is a disease caused by the bacteria Salmonella, which is commonly found in reptiles and amphibians. Up to 90% of reptiles and amphibians carry the bacteria in their gut without showing any signs of disease. It is difficult to test for these bacteria. It is shed in feces and is transmitted to humans directly from the pet or through anything the pet has been in contact with. It is very important to change water regularly, wash your hands after handling the pet, and properly sanitize the environment. Infection with Salmonella commonly causes gastrointestinal signs (such as diarrhea) in adults, but can be fatal in children.

Giardia is a protozoa that can be transmitted from all pets, including cats and dogs. The sources of giardia include water and handling of infected animals. In humans and animals, giardia causes gastrointestinal signs, although almost half of infected humans show no signs. Giardia can be fatal in chinchillas. There is a special test available at veterinary clinics for giardia.

Dermatomycosis is a skin disease caused by fungi and can be found on all mammalian pets (including dogs, cats, rats, guinea pigs, rabbits and ferrets). The most common fungus causes ringworm, an easily identifiable skin infection. Dermatomycosis causes itchy skin and hair loss in both humans and animals. It is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact. Another skin disease is a mite disease called scabies. Scabies is also found on mammalian pets and is transmitted through skin contact. It causes itchy skin and is often associated with secondary infections.

Psittacosis is a disease caused by the bacteria Chlamydophila psittaci and can be obtained from birds in the parrot family and some wild birds. Symptoms in birds include inflamed eyes, difficulty breathing, and watery droppings. However, birds can show mild or severe signs, or show no signs at all. The bacteria are shed through feces and nasal discharge. It causes varying severities of pneumonia-like symptoms in humans. There have been very few cases of psittacosis reported, but bird owners must keep in mind that they are at greater risk than the general population.

Some diseases that you may hear of in birds are actually extremely rare in pet birds, and occur more commonly in wild birds and poultry. These include mycobacteria, New Castle disease, and campylobacter.

Cheyletiella is an uncommon mite found mostly on rabbits, but can be found on all mammalian pets. The appearance of cheyletiella gives it the name ‘walking dandruff’, and it does not usually cause itchy skin or loss of hair in the rabbit. Therefore, it often goes unnoticed by the owner. It causes itchy skin in humans, but because it cannot reproduce on humans, over time it will simply cease to exist on the skin.

Pasteurella is a common bacteria found in the respiratory tract of rabbits. Some strains can cause severe upper respiratory infection, but the majority of rabbits are symptom-free. It is transmitted through bites and scratches, and can cause fever, vomiting, and chills in humans. A very similar disease is caused by Streptobacillus moniliformis, which is transmitted by bites and scratches from rodents. It is termed ‘rat bite fever’.

Rabies is always a consideration for pets. Although it is unlikely that a household pet will get rabies, this disease is deadly in humans and animals and deserves to be mentioned. There is a rabies vaccination available for ferrets. Another highly unlikely disease is avian influenza. This is mainly a concern in poultry in parts of Asia. But as a bird owner, you should understand the concerns in the scientific community that a strain will develop that can pass between humans. Because we have never been exposed to it, it could have severe effects. This is not a concern in pet birds at this point.

As with all pets, there is also the concern of allergies. While this is not a ‘disease’, allergies to feathers, dust, dander, feed, and bedding should always be taken into consideration before purchasing a pet.

Although it is very uncommon to contract a disease from your exotic pet, it is a risk that you should understand. Houses with children and immuno-compromised individuals should be especially careful with pets. By properly handling your pet and its environment, you will significantly reduce the chance of disease transmission. Remember that the risk of obtaining a disease from your pet should be a good reason to take good care of it and should not stop you from owning an exotic pet.

By Ashley O’Driscoll- writer

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