What is a zoonotic disease?

A zoonotic disease is a disease that can be transmitted from animal species to humans. Well-known examples of zoonotic infections include plague, rabies, Lyme disease, avian influenza, toxoplasmosis, and various intestinal parasites. Zoonotic disease has likely been a problem for humans since they began to share 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 be passed from other animals to humans. Viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites demonstrate the adaptability needed to jump species, and can often be carried by multiple animal species. Often an animal can carry a zoonotic disease without showing any symptoms, as is the case with toxoplasmosis and cats. In other cases, the animal will become ill, as occurs with spongiform diseases such as bovine spongiform encephalitis.

There are several ways to acquire a zoonotic disease, depending on the agent that causes it. Direct contact with infected animals or their body products such as feces and urine is a common mode of infection. Especially with parasites, eating the meat of an infected animal can cause the infection to spread. In other cases, indirect contact can lead to infection. The plague, for example, spread from fleas on the bodies of rats.

The prevention of zoonotic diseases is extremely important, since many of them are very virulent. There are several approaches, but the main 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 identifying and addressing it early.

By tracking diseases in animals and humans, scientists can determine when there is a link that suggests zoonoses, and they can act quickly. Infected animals are usually culled, so they cannot infect other members of the herd, and the rest of the herd 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 possible case of zoonotic disease by disclosing recent contact with animals, especially if you have been bitten, scratched, or exposed to fecal material.

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