What you need to know about zoonotic diseases – Q&A for pet owners

5 July 2024

Zoonotic diseases, or zoonoses, pose a serious human health risk. For World Zoonoses Day (6th July), we’ve prepared this Q&A on the essential information about zoonotic diseases, to help pet owners learn more about them and how they can be prevented.

  1. What are zoonotic diseases or zoonoses?

Zoonotic diseases, or zoonoses, are infectious diseases that can be transmitted between animals and humans. A large proportion of newly identified and existing diseases are zoonoses and there are over 200 known types in the world1. Some of the more well-known zoonotic diseases are COVID-19, Ebola virus and rabies.

  1. How are zoonotic diseases transmitted to humans? 

Zoonotic diseases can be transmitted directly from animals to humans through bites or scratches from infected animals, where the virus is transmitted through the animal’s saliva or other bodily fluid. They can be transmitted by a vector such as a tick or mosquito that transmits the disease, or by droplets in the air, through coughs or sneezes2. Diseases can also be transmitted indirectly through coming into contact with food, water, plants, soil or an object such as an animal enclosure, that has been contaminated by an infected animal1. Whilst most zoonotic diseases are transmitted from animals to humans, they can also be transmitted from humans to animals2.

  1. Why do zoonotic diseases pose a risk to humans? 

Zoonotic diseases pose a serious human health risk and humans don’t have existing immunity to them3. Certain people are at higher risk of zoonotic diseases and may have more severe and/or longer lasting symptoms, including people who are immunocompromised (e.g. patients undergoing treatment for autoimmune diseases, chemotherapy or organ transplantation), pregnant women, elderly people and young children4.

  1. How can zoonotic diseases be prevented? 

The risk of pet-associated disease is generally small for people who are not immunocompromised, pregnant women, young children or older adults4,5. In these cases, proper pet husbandry and general hand hygiene should be adequate to protect against disease transmission5.

To reduce the chance of catching a zoonotic disease from your pet, practice good personal hygiene, particularly washing hands after handling pets and before eating, clean up your pet’s faeces regularly, and groom dogs regularly to minimise the risk of coat contamination4.

People who are at higher risk of zoonotic diseases should have increased vigilance and consider additional precautions such as promptly washing bites and scratches from animals; not allowing pets to lick open wounds or cuts; wearing gloves to clean up pet faeces and clean litter trays, cages or aquariums; and avoiding contact with animals with diarrhoea and stray animals5.

  1. What zoonotic diseases can affect humans and pets in the UK?

Probably the most well-known zoonotic disease, COVID-19, has infected millions of humans. Several animal species can catch COVID-19 including pet cats, dogs and ferrets, and humans can transmit the virus to these animals7. However, cases of COVID-19 in cats and dogs in the UK are very rare8.

Lyme disease is transmitted to animals and humans through a tick bite. Whilst this can be a serious illness if untreated, only a small proportion of ticks carry the bacteria that causes Lyme disease and not all bites from an infected tick will lead to infection. Both dogs and humans can be affected by Lyme disease, but it’s rarely diagnosed in cats. If you find a tick on your pet or yourself, remove it as quickly as possible, ideally using a ‘tick remover’ tool.

Canine brucellosis is a relatively new disease to the UK that affects dogs, with most cases diagnosed in dogs that have been imported into the UK from eastern Europe9. There have been a small number of cases in humans in the UK, all of which have been in people who have had contact with an infected dog9. The risk of most people catching canine brucellosis is very low, although dog breeders and owners of imported dogs may be at a higher risk9.


1World Health Organisation (2020) Zoonoses. Available at: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/zoonoses#:~:text=A%20zoonosis%20is%20any%20disease,through%20vaccination%20and%20other%20methods

2Rahman MT, Sobur MA, Islam MS, Ievy S, Hossain MJ, El Zowalaty ME et al. (2020) Zoonotic Diseases: Etiology, Impact, and Control. Microorganisms. 12;8(9), 1405.

3Le Page M (2020) Viruses from animals. New Sci. 8;245(3268), 10. doi:10.1016/S0262-4079(20)30236-0.

4ESCCAP (2024) Zoonoses. Available at: https://www.esccapuk.org.uk/page/Zoonoses/9/

5Stull JW Brophy J & Weese JS (2015) Reducing the risk of pet-associated zoonotic infections. Canadian Medical Association Journal. 14;187(10), 736-743. doi:10.1503/cmaj.141020.

6Scientific American (2023) New Evidence Supports Animal Origin of COVID Virus through Raccoon Dogs. Available at https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/new-evidence-supports-animal-origin-of-covid-virus-through-raccoon-dogs/

7Kumar D, Bayry J & Hegde NR (2022) COVID-19: A Veterinary and One Health Perspective. J Indian Inst Sci. 102, 689–709. https://doi.org/10.1007/s41745-022-00318-9

8Defra (2020) Covid-19 confirmed in pet dog in the UK. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/covid-19-confirmed-in-pet-dog-in-the-uk

9UK HSA (2023) Brucella canis: information for the public and dog owners. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/brucella-canis-information-for-the-public-and-dog-owners/brucella-canis-information-for-the-public-and-dog-owners