Zoo Who? Preventing Zoonotic Parasites in Pets and People

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Sharing is a beautiful thing. We love to share our lives, homes, and sometimes our food with our pets, who give us unconditional love, and fill our days with laughter. Unfortunately, pets can also share their intestinal parasites—talk about ruining the moment.

Before you reject your pet’s affection, learn how you can prevent zoonotic parasites with the following guide from Neighborhood Vets Mobile Care.  

Zoonotic parasites in pets

For most people, pet zoonotic parasites are a minimal risk that cause only mild symptoms. However, children, the elderly, pregnant women, and immunocompromised populations are at a higher risk for infection. Children may acquire a parasite from their play habits, interactions with pets, and lack of hand washing. Adults with altered immune systems are less capable of resisting infection.

No matter your risk level, understanding the common transmission routes and preventive measures can help you keep your pet, yourself, and your family healthy.

Common zoonotic parasites in pets

Pets can carry many parasites, but not all are zoonotic. Most dog and cat parasites prefer animal hosts to humans, explaining why human infections differ from those in pets. The most common zoonotic parasites include ascarids and cestodes (i.e., worms), protozoan organisms, and mites, such as:

  • Tapeworms
  • Roundworms
  • Hookworms
  • Giardia
  • Toxoplasma gondii
  • Sarcoptes scabiei

Zoonotic parasite transmission from pets to people

The list may be intimidating, but many zoonotic parasites share similar transmission routes from pets to people.

  • Fecal-oral — Infected pet or wildlife stool can contain thousands of parasite eggs. 
  • Contaminated soil or water — Eggs from infected stool can pass into the soil, and survive for weeks to months.
  • Direct skin contact — Mites and hookworms can penetrate the skin, and cause intense itching and discomfort.
  • Inhalation — Infected toxoplasma cysts can enter the air while an infected cat’s litter box is being cleaned.

Preventing pets and people from zoonotic parasites

Proper hygiene, routine veterinary care, and environmental management are crucial to avoiding zoonotic parasite transmission and infection.

  • Wash your hands after handling your pet or their belongings — Wash your hands with soap for 20 seconds after handling pet feces, litter boxes, food and water bowls, or pet care items. Infected pets can spread parasite eggs on their coat, so washing your hands after contact with potentially infected animals is strongly advised, especially before eating. Also, wear gloves when gardening or working outdoors, to create a barrier against potentially infective soil.

  • Have your pet’s stool tested annually for intestinal parasites — A fecal screening evaluates your pet’s stool under a microscope, looking for parasite eggs or cysts. Adult pets can show no visible infection signs, but still pass eggs into the environment, and infect other pets and people.

Puppies and kittens require frequent parasite screenings because of the likelihood of infection from their mother. Most puppies and kittens are born with roundworms, transmitted from a dormant infection in the mother and passed through the placenta, or while nursing. They are most affected by intestinal and external parasites, and can suffer malnutrition and anemia in severe cases. Neighborhood Vets Mobile Care recommends a broad spectrum dewormer for all new pets, to treat known or occult (i.e., hidden) infections.

  • Keep your pet on year-round heartworm, flea, and tick prevention — Although heartworms are not a zoonotic parasite, monthly heartworm preventives contain a broad-spectrum dewormer that also provides consistent roundworm and hookworm treatment. Flea and tick preventives also protect against a range of vector-borne diseases, such as Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis, and tapeworms carried by fleas.

Parasites and their eggs can survive in the environment and are a constant threat, because they are shed intermittently by infected pets and wildlife. Ensure your dog or cat has heartworm, flea, and tick prevention year-round, to ensure complete protection. 

  • Remove pet waste as soon as possible — Parasite eggs are not always immediately infective in your pet’s stool, but leaving infectious stool lying around can lead to contaminated soil. Therefore, fresh feces is the safest to handle, and should be removed from your yard as soon as possible. You should also bag and dispose of all pet waste while walking your dog, and prevent them from investigating unknown pet waste. 

Clean your cat’s litter box daily, and completely change the litter and disinfect the box with a 1:32 bleach and water dilution weekly. High-risk owners should wear gloves when cleaning the box or any pet waste, and avoid stirring the contents, which may drive toxoplasma cysts into the air. Pregnant women should always avoid cleaning the litter box or handling pet waste, to protect their fetus.

  • Make your pet’s environment unwelcome to parasites — Wildlife and stray animals can bring parasites to your yard, so discourage them, and protect your pet, by eliminating attractants such as trash cans, pet food, and bird feeders, clearing away brush and debris, and eliminating hiding places. Keeping grasses short will also deter tick populations. Cover sandboxes and children’s play areas to prevent stray cats from using them as a litter box. Remove standing water where mosquitoes like to breed. 

Zoonotic parasites may sound frightening, but they don’t need to come between you and your pet. With monthly preventives, basic hygiene, and preventive veterinary care, you can have peace of mind that your pet is sharing only the best of themselves. To discuss your pet’s preventive protocol, or to schedule an appointment, contact Neighborhood Vets Mobile Care.