A recent study from the Netherlands investigated the prevalence of zoonotic parasites in pet feces and on pets’ haircoats. The authors sampled feces and fur from dogs and cats, and looked for Toxocara (roundworms), Toxoplasma, Giardia and Cryptosporidium. All these parasites are of concern from a public health standpoint because they can be found in healthy pets and can also infect people.

Toxocara eggs were found on the haircoats of 12% of dogs and 3.4% of cats. Levels were low, ranging from 1-31 eggs per sample. An important aspect of this study was that they also assessed viability of these eggs, and found that none were viable.  Therefore, even though eggs were present, they were not relevant because they were dead. Exposure to UV light and lack of humiditiy were cited as possible reasons for the death of the eggs.

Toxocara were found in the feces of 4.4% of dogs and 4.6% of cats, which is consistent with other studies of healthy pets.

Toxoplasma was not found in the feces of any cat. (Cats are the hosts for this parasite so dogs weren’t tested.)

Giardia was found in the feces of 15% of dogs and 13.6% of cats. However, when these strains were typed, the vast majority were species-specific types that do not cause disease in people. Only 2 of the 15 Giardia samples were assemblage A, a type that is transmissible from pets to people. This is very important to know because crude Giardia numbers don’t tell you the whole story

Cryptosporidium was found in feces of 8.7% of dogs and 4.6% of cats. However, they were not able to type these parasites to determine if they were species that typically cause infection in humans, or whether they were Cryptosporidium felis or C. canis, which rarely cause disease in people.

The discussion section of the paper contains an interesting and relevant point about exposure to Toxocara eggs on the haircoat of pets. The authors state "Even in the worst case scenario of highly contaminated fur, e.g. with the highest Toxocara [eggs per gram] of 300 and an embryonated rate of 4% from the study of Wolfe and Wright, it is necessary to ingest more than 4 grams of hair, with 12 embryonated eggs per gram, to ingest 50 infective eggs."  Based on these data, exposure to parasites from the haircoat of pets is quite unlikely.  It might be a greater concern with stray or debilitated animals, or with puppies/kittens, who could have much greater coat contamination.

The take home message: Normal contact with healthy pets likely poses minimal risk of transmission of zoonotic parasites. That being said, regularly washing your hands is still a good idea because of the potential for exposure to other types of microorganisms (e.g. bacteria), and in rare circumstances where there may be large parasite burdens on a pet. Good deworming practices, particularly for puppies and kittens, also need to be considered.

Reference: Overgaauw et al, Veterinary Parasitology, 2009.