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Pets and Infectious Diseases in Children

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

Proper care of your pet may prevent the spread of infection or illness to household members. To prevent the spread of disease from your pet, take the following precautions:

  • Keep your pet's immunizations current.

  • 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 and avoid having your pet eat raw foods or drink out of the toilet.

  • Clean cat litter boxes every day. Pregnant women should avoid touching cat litter. It may contain infectious diseases that cause birth defects, including toxoplasmosis.

  • Wash your hands thoroughly after touching animals or cleaning up animal waste. Your children should do the same.

  • Washing hands is especially important after handling reptiles, because reptiles may harbor a bacteria called salmonella. Salmonella can cause salmonellosis. This is characterized by up to a week of diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps. Most people who contract salmonella will have symptoms that last from 4 to 7 days and will recover without treatment.

What is the relationship between wild animals and infectious diseases?

Wild animals and insects can be carriers for 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," a 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. Do not scrub because this bruises the tissue.

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

  • Dry the wound and cover it with a sterile dressing. Do not use tape or butterfly bandages, as they can trap harmful bacteria in the wound.

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

  • If possible, locate the animal that inflicted the wound. Some animals need to be captured, confined, and observed for rabies. Do not try to capture the animal yourself; instead contact the nearest animal warden or animal control office in your area.

  • If the animal cannot 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. Caused by a virus in the Rhabdoviridae family, it attacks the nervous system and, once symptoms develop, is 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 United States, 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 in raccoons, woodchucks (also known as groundhogs) can also be rabid.

How does rabies happen?

The rabies virus enters the body either through a cut, scratch, or through mucous membranes (such as the lining of the mouth and eyes), and 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 transmitted through the infected animal's saliva. Scratches by claws of rabid animals are also dangerous because these animals lick their claws.

What are the symptoms of rabies?

The incubation period in humans from the time of exposure to the onset of illness can range anywhere from 5 days to more than a year, although the average incubation period is about 2 months. The following are the most common symptoms of rabies. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Although 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 induce painful throat spasms

  • Restlessness

  • Hyperactivity

  • Disorientation

  • Seizures

The symptoms of rabies may resemble other medical conditions and problems. Always talk with your child's healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

Online Medical Reviewer: Freeborn, Donna, PhD, CNM, FNP
Online Medical Reviewer: Lentnek, Arnold, MD
Date Last Reviewed: 10/1/2016
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