Protecting the health of pets and people

Vanessa Tonn

Fourth-year veterinary student Vanessa Tonn and a pet rabbit. Photo: Debra Marshall.

Most pet owners would agree that a cuddle or a lick from their favourite four-legged creatures can do a lot to make a bad day more bearable. But with all of the attention being paid to zoonotic diseases – those which can transfer from animals to humans – should we be concerned that spending time with our pets can actually make us sick?

According to University of Guelph professor Dr. Scott Weese, people do need to be mindful of the diseases that pets can carry, but that shouldn’t stop them from enjoying the many benefits of pet ownership.

“I spend half my day talking about these diseases and telling people they need to pay attention, but I spend the other half saying, ‘Relax! Live life! Your pet is probably not going to make you sick,’” said Weese during a public lecture at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in May 2011.

Weese, a zoonotic disease microbiologist at the U of G’s Centre for Public Health and Zoonoses, explained that people have to compare the costs to the benefits. While there are health risks associated with owning pets, there are also many benefits, and owners have to determine what’s important to them.

Although the risk is much greater for people with weakened immune systems, Weese pointed out that they may also be the individuals that reap the most benefit from pet ownership.

“It’s figuring out that balance. Maintaining the social emotional aspects and reducing the risks as much as possible,” he explained. “You can’t eliminate the risk, but if there’s a positive aspect to having the pet, then rarely would we say that any form of pet ownership is too dangerous for an individual.”

For those who are immunocompromised, Weese suggested staying away from rare, exotic species, choosing breeds that are less likely to cause injury from bites or scratches due to territoriality or excitability, and talking to their veterinarian and physician about pet ownership, disease risks and preventive measures.

He also pointed out that pet owners can follow simple guidelines to reduce the risks of their pets acquiring diseases. These include keeping cats indoors, preventing contact between pets and wild animals, and providing diets and treats that don’t contain any raw animal-based products.

Owners can reduce their own risk of disease by avoiding contact with high-risk species such as reptiles and employing common sense, household hygiene practices. These include hand washing, cleaning and avoiding direct contact with feces.

Weese emphasized that awareness is key. “At the end of the day, every dog and every cat is still a biohazard, so we need to do things that lower the risk of the animal bringing something in and causing disease. But that risk is always there.”

Veterinarians play an important role as part of the family health team. By initiating discussions with their clients, veterinarians can endeavour to identify high-risk individuals and inform them about potential problems. And they can advise all clients on methods of disease prevention.

“I feel that pets are members of the family, and studies show that the majority of pet owners agree,” said Weese. “Our role as veterinarians is to help our clients reduce the risk of zoonotic disease without losing the positive aspects of pet ownership.”

Want to know more? Visit Dr. Scott Weese’s blog,, for more information.


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