Pest-Borne Diseases that Pet Owners Should Know About

Warming Weather May Bring Unanticipated Consequences for Pet Owners

The return of more pleasant weather and warmer, longer days brings with it the promise of greater outdoor activities. Of course, we are not the only one looking forward to spending more time outdoors. Pet owners know many of their companions will also be happy to spend more time out and about.

Unfortunately, there are a number of pests and diseases that pets may pick up as they romp around outdoors. Worse yet, there are a number of infections that can be spread from pets to people. Infectious diseases of an animal that can be transmitted to humans are known as zoonoses.

Some zoonoses are transmitted directly from animals to humans – such as through bites and saliva as in the case of rabies. Other infections are transmitted via intermediate species, or vectors, such as ticks and Lyme disease.

With our pet cats and dogs, the greatest risks are from pests like fleas and ticks, both because of the relative frequency with which they are picked up and the infections that they can transmit.

All About Fleas

Fleas are not only little pests with annoying bites leading to itching and discomfort. Local reactions to bites can expand to larger allergic reactions and secondary skin infections. In addition, fleas can carry (and transmit) a number of infections.

Flea-borne infections include infection from Yersinia pestis – or better known as the cause of plague. This is a potentially deadly infection that infamous for causing millions of deaths in devastating epidemics, like the “Black Death” of medieval Europe. But this is not only a historical concern. Currently Plague remains endemic in the western (especially the southwestern) United States.

Signs and symptoms of plague depend on the three forms of plague.

  1. Bubonic plague is characterized by painful enlarged lymph nodes, chills, headache and fever.
  2. Pneumonic plague presents with chest pain, shortness of breath, cough, fever and pneumonia.
  3. Septicemic plague symptoms include fevers, sepsis and shock.

If diagnosed in time the various forms of plague are usually highly responsive to antibiotic therapy.

Another flea-borne infection found in the United States (primarily southern California, Texas and Hawaii) is infection from Rickettsia typhi, the agent of murine or endemic typhus. This infection is characterized by high fever with flu-like symptoms, dry cough, headache, muscle and joint pain, and nausea and vomiting. Endemic typhus is highly treatable with antibiotics. Most people recover fully, but death may occur in the elderly, severely disabled or patients with a depressed immune system.

All About Tick-Borne Diseases

There are a surprising number of tick-borne infections, including Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF), tularemia, babesia, ehrlicheosis, anaplasmosis, tick paralysis and other tick-borne infections that can also be brought home by outdoor pets.

Lyme disease is most common in the upper Midwest, north-central Atlantic, and especially northeastern United States. Lyme disease is caused by the spirochete, Borrelia burgdorferi. Symptoms of infection include a "bull's-eye" rash with fever, headache, and muscle or joint pain. Untreated, symptoms can worsen and even cause mental changes and other neurologic complaints.

Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF) is most common in the south central and the mid-south Atlantic regions of the United States. It is transmitted by ticks infected by the Rickettsia ricketsii bacteria. Symptoms of RMSF include high fever, chills, muscle aches and headaches, as well as a rash that may spread across the extremities, including palms, soles and the trunk of the body. Untreated infection can be fatal. If diagnosed early, RMSF responds well to treatment with antibiotics. 

How to Protect Your Pets

Of course, the best strategy is to not pick up these pests and risks of infection in the first place. Tips to help reduce your pet's exposure (and, in turn, your exposure) to fleas and ticks include checking pets frequently for fleas and ticks. Be aware of excessive scratching, licking and nibbling grooming behavior in pets, as these may be signs that fleas or ticks are present.

Avoid walking pets in tall grass and by low-growing bushes, like along the edge of woods or trails, where there is a greater chance of fleas and ticks hitching a ride. Check pets frequently for these pests, especially after the animal has been outside.

Consult with a veterinarian about prevention and treatment options available to pets. If you suspect a pest problem, contact a licensed pest professional immediately to treat the problem.