It is unlikely that a veterinarian is the first person to come to mind when you’re dealing with personal health issues. However, your overall health is connected to your animal’s health in a variety of ways.
Of course, the bond between people and their pets has been proven to improve fitness levels and reduce stress for pet owners. Animal lovers will readily attest to the comfort and relaxation which comes from their four-legged companions. Animals, of a variety of species, are valued for their companionship and improving our overall quality of life. And certainly guide dogs and service dogs have assisted people with visual impairments and disabilities for many years. But there is also much being said about the connection between healthy pets and healthy people - are pets actually “good for us”?
The “pet effect” is demonstrated with evidence that having animals in your life may actually keep you healthy. There is research suggesting that a person may lower their blood pressure simply by petting and talking to a dog. Research also supports the idea that dog owners have a better chance of surviving a heart attack. The research on the animal-human bond is extensive and demonstrates everything from pet owners having less sick days to exposure to pets reducing a child’s risk of developing allergies.
As much as happy, healthy pets contribute to happy, healthy humans, it is also possible for some diseases in animals to lead to human illness. The ability of some disease to infect different animals and then be transmitted into people is something that is carefully monitored by both veterinary and public health professionals.
Something that you may not know is that the COVID-19 virus that has affected life on a worldwide scale is an example of a disease that made the jump from an animal (bats) to humans. A better-known example is rabies, which is most commonly spread through bites from rabid animals and can be fatal. Other examples of common diseases associated with pets include cat scratch disease which comes from a bacteria carried by approximately 40% of cats. Campylobacteriosis is a disease caused by bacteria which may infect pets and be spread through contact with their feces. Common intestinal or external parasites, such as roundworms, fleas or ticks, can accidentally be transmitted to humans. Infections are typically acquired from bites, scratches or contact with animal saliva, urine, secretions, and feces. Diseases can also be transmitted indirectly through contaminated surfaces. There are more than 70 human diseases which can be attributed to pets as the potential source.
Diseases that are passed from animals to humans are called zoonoses or zoonotic illnesses, and by safeguarding animal health and wellness, veterinarians are also protecting human health. To learn more information about how you can help protect yourself and your pets from zoonotic illnesses, consult with your veterinarian and ensure your animals are on an appropriate infection control program, including vaccinations and parasite control.
Worms & Germs Blog
The University of Guelph’s Worms & Germs Blog is prepared by The Centre for Public Health and Zoonoses and offers information relating to zoonotic diseases, including aspects of human and pet health, infection prevention and control and vaccination. The site focuses on infectious diseases of companion animals (household pets and horses), but also includes information on the impact of infectious diseases on the public, including diseases transmitted by urban wildlife, exotic pet ownership and emerging diseases in companion animals. Information sheets are also available specifically for veterinarians, physicians, the public and also children.
Reporting animal bites:
Reporting animal bites is one significant way that veterinarians support public health. Veterinarians are legally required to report all animal bites to their local public health unit so the Medical Officer of Health can assess the potential risk to human health, specifically rabies exposure. The information reported includes the animal’s species, description of incident and vaccination history.
The biting animal is then often observed over a period of 10 days and isolated from other animals and people, except for the caregiver. At then end of this period, the animal is assessed to ensure it does not show clinical signs of rabies.
Veterinarians and Public Health
Veterinarians are readily associated with private practice focused on pets and farm animals but the true dimensions and contributions of veterinary medicine are broad, including challenges facing animal and human health and the environment. Your veterinarian is very much part of your public health team. The history and tradition of the veterinary profession have always focused on protecting and improving both animal health and human health.
Veterinarians are also responsible for reporting specific diseases which are of public health concern. These are called reportable diseases and veterinarians help monitor their presence in Canada. The process of reporting and tracking these diseases is known as disease surveillance and plays a crucial role in public health and epidemiology (the study of where disease is and how often it occurs). Some of these diseases include rabies, Mad Cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalitis), foot-and-mouth disease, anthrax, tuberculosis, swine fever, West Nile Virus and many others. Veterinarians play an essential role in diagnosis and reporting of these diseases.
One Health recognizes that the health of people, animals and the ecosystem are interconnected. The College of Veterinarians of Ontario has identified One Health stewardship as a strategic initiative and has the opportunity to support veterinary initiatives which promote public and animal health and welfare. The College regulates the practice of veterinary medicine in Ontario.