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What is a Zoonotic Disease?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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A zoonotic disease is a disease which can be passed from animal species to humans. Well known examples of zoonotic infections include plague, rabies, Lyme disease, bird flu, toxoplasmosis, and a number of intestinal parasites. It is probable that zoonotic disease has been an issue for humans ever since they started sharing living space with animal species, and many medical professionals specialize in the study and prevention of zoonotic diseases.

Any organism can cause a zoonotic disease, as long as it can pass from other animals to humans. Viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites all demonstrate the adaptability necessary to jump species, and frequently can be carried by multiple animal species. Often, an animal can carry a zoonotic disease without demonstrating any symptoms, as is the case with toxoplasmosis and cats. In other instances, the animal will become ill, as occurs with spongiform diseases like bovine spongiform encephalitis.

There are a number of ways to acquire a zoonotic disease, depending on the agent which causes it. Direct contact with infected animals or their body products such as feces and urine is a common mode of infection. With parasites especially, eating the meat of an infected animal may result in the spread of infection. In other instances, indirect contact can result in infection. The plague, for example, spread from fleas on the bodies of rats.

Prevention of zoonotic diseases is extremely important, as many of them are very virulent. There are a number of approaches, but the primary methods are limiting human and animal contact in situations with increased risk, immunizing humans and animals, and identifying infected species and individuals. Limiting contact is an excellent way to limit the spread of zoonotic disease, although it is not always practical. Immunization is also an important part of prevention, but it can take time to develop an effective vaccine. The most important part of controlling zoonosis, another term for zoonotic disease, is to identify and address it early.

By tracking illness in animals and humans, scientists can determine when there is a link which suggests zoonosis, and they can act quickly. Infected animals are usually eliminated, so that they cannot infect other members of the herd, and the rest of the animal group is carefully monitored for signs of disease outbreak. Infected humans are isolated in quarantine until the disease can be treated. As a patient, you can help a doctor identify a potential zoonotic disease case by disclosing recent contact with animals, especially if you have been bitten, scratched, or exposed to fecal material.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By serenesurface — On May 09, 2012

I never realized how widespread these diseases our until my friend got sick from her fish.

It sounds weird doesn't it? I did too but apparently, fish can carry zoonotic diseases too and pass it on to humans who handle them.

What happened to my friend is that he got a fish tank in his room. Soon after he developed asthma. He used to get asthma attacks daily and kept going to the hospital. The doctors ran so many tests and didn't find anything. Finally one doctor asked about his room and when he heard that he had fish, he told my friend to take the fish tank out.

It worked! It was the fish! The doctor told him that fish carry a type of bacteria that gets into the tank water and eventually the surrounding air. That was what was causing his asthma! Unbelievable!

By SteamLouis — On May 08, 2012

@ddljohn-- I don't think that's true because the meaning of zoonotic diseases is that it can be passed from animals to humans. It doesn't require mutation. There are so many diseases out there but only some of them fit in the zoonotic diseases category.

That's why we give immunization to our dogs and cats for these diseases, like for parasites and rabies. Because even if it doesn't cause illness in our pets, it can pass to us and make us ill like the article said. Some can even cause massive deaths.

There are so many examples like the bubonic plague which was a zoonotic disease. Bird and swine flu could have been a lot worse too if precautions hadn't been taken.

By ddljohn — On May 08, 2012

This has been a hot topic ever since bird flu and swine flu deaths started occurring.

From what I've heard from various news reports, viral zoonoses diseases technically shouldn't be able to pass from an animal to a human under regular circumstances right? Because whenever scientists talk about bird flu and swine flu, they say that the virus mutated and was then able to pass to humans.

So maybe the question we should be asking is what causes this mutation?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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