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Zoonosis: What Is It?

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 transfers the infecting organism.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta have said that most emerging diseases around the world are zoonotic. The director of the CDC has said that 11 of the last 12 emerging infections in the world with serious health consequences have probably arisen from animal sources. Wild animal trade occurs across countries and many people take in wild animals as domestic pets. However, pet shops and food markets are not properly testing for diseases and parasites that can cause harm to humans and other animals.

Some zoonotic diseases are well known, such as rats (plague), deer tick (Lyme disease). Others are not as well known. For example, elephants may develop tuberculosis, and spread it to humans.

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.

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