Many studies show the health benefits of dog ownership. Dogs not only provide comfort and companionship, but several studies have found that dogs decrease stress and promote relaxation. Dogs have positive impacts on nearly all life stages. They influence social, emotional, and cognitive development in children, promote an active lifestyle, and have even been able to detect oncoming epileptic seizures or the presence of certain cancers. But for all the positive benefits of keeping dogs, pet owners should be aware that dogs can carry germs that make people sick.
Although germs from dogs rarely spread to people, they might cause a variety of illnesses, ranging from minor skin infections to serious disease. To protect yourself and your family from getting sick:
- Seek routine veterinary care for your pet and
- Always wash your hands and the hands of children with running water and soap after contact with dogs, their stool, and their food.
By providing your pet with routine veterinary care and some simple health tips, you are less likely to get sick from touching, petting, or owning dogs in the United States.
Click the tabs above for more information about choosing dogs, a list of diseases people can get from dogs, and information on how to keep yourself and your pet dogs healthy.
The most common diseases associated with dogs that can cause human illness are:
Most people who become sick with campylobacteriosis will have diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain, and fever within 2-5 days after exposure to the organism. Campylobacter can cause serious life-threatening infections in infants, older persons, and those with weakened immune systems.
In people, children are more commonly infected but don’t usually show signs of disease. The best way to prevent infection in pets is to control the flea population in the environment.
People become infected with dog hookworms while walking barefoot, kneeling, or sitting on ground contaminated with stool of infected animals. Hookworm larvae enter the top layers of skin and cause an itchy reaction called cutaneous larva migrans. A red squiggly line might appear where the larvae have migrated under the skin. Symptoms usually resolve without medical treatment in 4-6 weeks.
The first symptoms in people can start days to months after exposure and include generalized weakness, fever, and headache. Within a few days symptoms will progress to confusion, anxiety, behavioral changes, and delirium. If you have been bitten by a dog or other animal and feel that there is a risk for rabies, contact your health care provider right away. Once symptoms appear, it is almost always too late for treatment.
In people, children are most often affected with roundworm. There are two forms of the disease in people. Ocular larva migrans happens when the larvae invade the retina and cause inflammation, scarring, and possibly blindness. Visceral larva migrans occurs when the larvae invade parts of the body, such as the liver, lung, or central nervous system.
Less common diseases associated with dogs that can cause human illness are:
People who are infected with brucellosis will usually become sick within 6-8 weeks of exposure. Sick people will have flu-like symptoms that last 2-4 weeks. Sometimes brucellosis can become a chronic illness that can be difficult to treat.
Rarely, Capnocytophaga can spread to people through bites, scratches, or close contact from a dog or cat and cause illness. Most people who have contact with a dog or cat do not become sick. People with weakened immune systems who have difficulty fighting off infections (for example, people with cancer or those taking certain medications such as steroids) are at greater risk of becoming ill.
Cryptosporidium illness in dogs is rarely seen, but they can carry the germ without showing any signs of illness.
Cryptosporidium can cause profuse, watery diarrhea with cramping, abdominal pain, and nausea in both animals and people. Illness in people is usually self-limiting and lasts only 2-4 days, but can become severe in people with weakened immune systems.
Although Echinococcus invades many different organs of the body, most people who are infected with the disease will not have any signs of illness for years. Symptoms start when the slow-growing cysts become large enough to press on the organs they have invaded. The tapeworms grow slowly in several different organs of the body, most commonly the liver and lungs.
People show similar signs and symptoms, which include fever, headache, chills, muscle pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and rash.
Symptoms in animals and people include diarrhea, greasy stools, and dehydration. People can also have abdominal cramps, nausea, and vomiting. Symptoms can last 1-2 weeks.
People who become infected with leptospirosis might not have any signs of the disease. Others will have nonspecific flu-like signs within 2-7 days after exposure. These symptoms usually resolve without medical treatment, but can reappear and lead to more severe disease.
Infected people will typically have a red “bull’s eye” rash at the site of the tick bite that appears about 7 days after being bitten. Flu-like symptoms quickly follow the rash. If not treated, this disease can spread to other parts of the body and cause symptoms such as arthritis and loss of facial muscle tone (Bell’s palsy). Lyme disease can be fatal.
MRSA can be transmitted back and forth between people and animals through direct contact. In people, MRSA most often causes skin infections that can range from mild to severe. If left untreated, MRSA can spread to the bloodstream or lungs and cause life-threatening infections.
Pasteurella is found in 50% of patients with infected dog bite wounds. Pasteurella can cause painful wound and skin infections. In more severe cases, it can cause widespread infection and might even affect the nervous system.
People most often become infected through flea bites or from contact with body fluids of infected animals. An example is a hunter skinning an infected rabbit or other animal. Bubonic plague is the most common form; symptoms include sudden onset of high fever, chills, headache, malaise, and swollen lymph nodes. The other two forms of plague, septicemic and pneumonic, cause more severe disease.
Ringworm infections in people can appear on almost any area of the body. These infections are usually itchy. Redness, scaling, cracking of the skin, or a ring-shaped rash may occur. If the infection involves the scalp or beard, hair may fall out. Infected nails become discolored or thick and may possibly crumble.
People start showing signs 2-14 days after exposure; these may include fever, rash, headache, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and muscle pain. RMSF can develop into a serious illness if not promptly treated.
People exposed to Salmonella might have diarrhea, vomiting, fever, or abdominal cramps. Infants, elderly persons, and those with weakened immune systems are more likely than others to develop severe illness.
People can’t become infested with the canine version of sarcoptic mange, but they can have a minor local reaction from the mites if they come in contact with an infested dog.
CDC recommends hand washing whenever you play or work with dogs.
- Wash your hands with soap and running water after contact with dogs, dog saliva, or dog stool. Be sure to assist children with handwashing. Thoroughly washing hands will reduce the risk of disease transmission to people.
- Avoid bites and scratches from dogs. Dog bites might become seriously infected or might be a source of rabies. Be cautious with unfamiliar animals. Approach dogs with care, even if they seem friendly.
- Pick up and dispose of dog stools, especially in areas where children might play. Cleaning up after your dog will help keep the area clean and reduce the risk of spreading disease to people or other animals.
- Visit your veterinarian for routine evaluation and care to keep your dog healthy and to prevent infectious diseases.
- Certain types of dog or puppy adoptions, like international pet adoption, might not be suitable for your family because of the risk for disease. This is particularly true if young children, pregnant women, or persons with weak immune systems are living in the household. Persons with weak immune systems may include the elderly or people with an illness such as diabetes or HIV/AIDS, or those undergoing chemotherapy.
- Research and learn how to properly care for your dog before purchase or adoption. Ask your veterinarian about the proper food, care, and environment that are best for the dog you are selecting.
- Be aware that dogs might shed Campylobacter, Giardia, hookworms, roundworms, and other germs in their stool. Plan to clean up after your pet frequently. Wash your and your child’s hands thoroughly with soap and water after feeding or cleaning up behind dogs.
- Match a dog’s attitude, temperament, size, and activity level with your family, your home, and the amount of time you have to spend with your pet.
- Pick a dog that is bright, alert, and playful. Dogs and puppies should have shiny, soft fur that is free of stool. Signs of illness in a dog include appearing sluggish or depressed, having diarrhea, abnormal breathing, and fluid running from its eyes or nose. Make sure to take your new dog or puppy to the veterinarian within a few days to a week after adoption for a health visit.
- If your dog becomes sick or dies soon after purchase or adoption, take your dog to the veterinarian promptly, and inform the pet store, breeder, or rescue organization about the pet’s illness or death. Make sure to tell your veterinarian if the pet was adopted internationally. Thoroughly clean the area occupied by your pet, and consider waiting at least a few weeks before purchasing or adopting another pet.
- It is important that you provide a safe, warm, and comfortable environment for your dog to live in.
- If your dog will be housed outside, provide shelter such as a doghouse for when it is cold or rainy and shade for when it is hot. Protecting your dog from the changes in weather will reduce stress and help keep it healthy.
- Make sure your dog has access to fresh, clean water every day.
- Consider fencing in your yard rather than tying your dog outside. A fence will not only give your pet room to play, but also will protect it from wild animals and reduce the risk of strangers interacting with your dog. Several studies have shown that dogs on a chain are more likely to bite than those in a fenced yard.
- If your dog is in a kennel, make sure to clean it regularly to prevent build-up of feces and possible spread of disease.
- Visit a veterinarian for routine evaluation and care to keep your dog healthy and prevent infectious diseases. Keeping your dog on a monthly preventative for fleas, heartworms, and other parasites, and up to date on vaccinations can help prevent certain diseases.
- Make sure to clean up any urine, feces, or vomit in the house immediately, and disinfect the area well. Use disposable gloves and make sure to wash your hands thoroughly afterwards.
- Contact your veterinarian if you notice any signs of illness in your pet. Keep in mind that even a dog that appears healthy might spread germs to humans and other animals.
About 4.5 million Americans receive dog bites each year, many of which require immediate medical attention. Young children 5 to 9 years old are most likely to bitten by dogs, with boys being bitten more often than girls.
Dog Bite Prevention. Follow these tips to prevent dog bites.
Germs can be spread from dog bites and scratches, even if the wound does not seem deep or serious. If a bite from a dog occurs, you should—
- Wash wounds with warm soapy water immediately.
- Seek medical attention:
- If you don’t know if the dog has been vaccinated against rabies
- If the dog appears sick or is acting strangely
- If the wound is serious (uncontrolled bleeding, loss of function, extreme pain, muscle or bone exposure, etc.)
- If the wound becomes red, painful, warm or swollen, or if you develop a fever
- If it has been more than 5 years since your last tetanus shot
- If you have any concerns about your or your child’s health
- Report the bite to your local animal control or health department.
- If possible, contact the owner and ensure the animal has a current rabies vaccination. You will need the rabies vaccine license number, name of the veterinarian that administered the vaccine, and the owner’s name, address, and phone number.
- Due to the risk of rabies, ensure that the dog is seen by a veterinarian and contact your local health department if it becomes sick or dies within 10 days of the bite.
Selecting a Dogexternal icon
American Veterinary Medical Association
Preventing Dog Bites
Don’t Let the Dogs Bite: How to be Safe Around Dogspdf iconexternal icon – Coloring and Activity Book
California Department of Public Health
Could a Dog Lick be Deadly?external icon
CDC’s Dr. Casey Barton Behravesh on The Dr. Oz Show
Nonfatal Dog Bite-Related Injuries Treated in Hospital Emergency Departents – US, 2001
Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. July 4, 2003 / 52(26);605-610.
Pickel D, Manucy GP, Walker DB, Hall SB, and Walker JC. Evidence for canine olfactory detection of melanoma. Appl Anim Behav Sci 2004;89:107-16.