Zoonosis, also called zoonotic disease refers to diseases that can be passed from animals, whether wild or domesticated, to humans.
Although many diseases are species specific, meaning that they can only occur in one animal species, many other diseases can be spread between different animal species. These are infectious diseases, caused by bacteria, viruses, or other disease causing organisms that can live as well in humans as in other animals.
There are different methods of transmission for different diseases. In some cases, zoonotic diseases are transferred by direct contact with infected animals, much as being near an infected human can cause the spread of an infectious disease. Other diseases are spread by drinking water that contains the eggs of parasites. The eggs enter the water supply from the feces of infected animals. Still others are spread by eating the flesh of infected animals. Tapeworms are spread this way. Other diseases are spread by insect vectors. An insect, such as a flea or tick, feeds on an infected animal, then feeds on a human. In the process, the insect transfer the infecting organism.
Causes and symptoms
The following is a partial list of animals and the diseases that they may carry. Not all animal carriers are listed, nor are all the diseases that the various species may carry.
- Bats are important rabies carriers, and also carry several other viral diseases that can affect humans.
- Cats may carry the causative organisms for plague, anthrax, cowpox, tapeworm, and many bacterial infections.
- Dogs may carry plague, tapeworm, rabies, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and Lyme disease.
- Horses may carry anthrax, rabies, and Salmonella infections.
- Cattle may carry the organisms that cause anthrax, European tick-borne encephalitis, rabies, tapeworm, Salmonella infections and many bacterial and viral diseases.
- Pigs are best known for carrying tapeworm, but may also carry a large number of other infections including anthrax, influenza, and rabies.
- Sheep and goats may carry rabies, European tick-borne encephalitis, Salmonella infections, and many bacterial and viral diseases.
- Rabbits may carry plague and Q-Fever.
- Birds may carry Campylobacteriosis , Chlamydia psittaci, Pasteurella multocida, Histoplasma capsulatum, Salmonellosis, and others.
Zoonotic diseases may be spread in different ways. Tapeworms care often spread to humans when they eat the infected meat of fish, cattle, and swine. Other diseases are transferred by insect vectors, often blood-feeding insects that carry the cause of the disease from one animal to another.
Diagnosis of the disease is made in the usual manner, by identifying the infecting organism. Each disease has established symptoms and tests. Identifying the carrier may be easy, or may be more difficult when the cause is a fairly common infection. For example, tapeworms are usually species specific. Cattle, pigs, and fish all carry different species of tapeworms, although all can be transmitted to humans who eat undercooked meat containing live tapeworm eggs. Once the tapeworm has been identified, it is easy to tell which species the tapeworm came from.
Other zoonotic infections may be harder to identify. Sometimes the infection is fairly common among both humans and animals, and it is impossible to tell. Snakes may carry the bacteria Escherichia coli and Proteus vulgaris, but since these bacteria are already common among humans, it would be difficult to trace infections back to snakes.
Because of increased trade between nations, and changes in animal habitats, there are often new zoonotic diseases. These may be found in animals transported from one nation to another, bringing with them new diseases. In some cases, changes in the environment lead to changes in the migratory habits of animal species, bringing new infections.
Treatment is the established treatment for the specific infection.
Prevention of zoonotic infections may take different forms, depending on the nature of the carrier and the infection.
Some zoonotic infections can be avoided by immunizing the animals that carry the disease. Pets and other domestic animals should have rabies vaccinations, and wild animals are immunized with an oral vaccine that is encased in a suitable bait. In some places, the bait is dropped by airplane over the range of the potential rabies carrier. When the animal eats the bait, they also ingest the oral vaccine, thereby protecting them from rabies, and reducing the risk of spread of the disease. This method has been used to protect foxes, coyotes, and other wild animals.
Many zoonotic diseases that are passed by eating the meat of infected animals can be prevented by proper cooking of the infected meat. Tapeworm infestations can be prevented by cooking, and Salmonella infections from chickens and eggs can be prevented by being sure that both the meat and the eggs are fully cooked.
For other zoonotic diseases, programs are in place to eliminate the host, or the vector that spreads the disease. Plague is prevented by elimination of the rats—a common source of the infection—and of fleas that carry the disease from rats to humans. Efforts to control bovine spongiform encephalitis, better known as Mad Cow disease, have focused on the destruction of infected cattle to prevent spread of the disease.
Other means of prevention simply rely on care. People living in areas where Lyme disease is common are warned to take precautions against the bite of the deer tick, which transfers the disease. These precautions include not walking in tall grass, not walking bare legged, and wearing light-colored clothing so that the presence of the dark ticks can be readily seen.
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American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK). Topeka Zoological Park 3601 SW 29th St., Ste. 133 Topeka, KS 66614-2054.
National Animal Disease Center Zoonotic Research Unit. 2300 Dayton Ave. PO Box 70 Ames, IA 50010.
Samuel Uretsky, PharmD
Anthrax—A diease of wam blooded animals, particularly cattle and sheep, transmissable to humans. The disease causes severe skin and lung damage.
Bovine spongiform encephalopathy—A progressive, fatal disease of the nervous system of domestic animals. It is transmitted by eating infected food.
Lyme disease—An acute disease which is usually marked by skin rash, fever, fatigue and chills. Left untreated, it may cause heart and nervous system damage.
Q-Fever—A disease that is marked by high fever, chills and muscle pain. It is seen in North America, Europe, and parts of Africa. It may be spread by drinking raw milk, or by tick bites.
Zoonotic—A disease which can be spread from animals to humans.