Did you know you could catch leprosy from an armadillo? Relatively few people ever catch leprosy or anything else from animals, but the risk is high enough to take seriously.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), dozens of illnesses — including cat-scratch fever and bird flu — can potentially spread from pets to people. To take just one example, more than 840 Americans contracted Salmonella from backyard chickens and ducks during an outbreak in 2012 and 2013, in part because so many owners were hugging and cuddling their chickens.

And of course, you can get all sorts of unpleasant and possibly life-threatening diseases from wild animals, including rabies, monkeypox, hantavirus and even the plague (all of which are treatable if caught in time).

Fortunately, you can prevent almost all these disease by taking some simple precautions, like not touching wild animals and practicing good hygiene with your pets. The most important step is to wash your hands with soap and water often, especially after handling animals or their waste. It’s also important to take your pets to the vet regularly and make sure your animals stay up to date on their vaccinations. Healthy pets are more likely to have healthy owners. Here’s a closer look at some of the weirdest diseases that you can catch from animals.

Related: The Truth About Salmonella and Your Pet


Armadillos are the only animals besides humans to carry leprosy, and a recent report in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that the animals have transmitted the disease to humans. Mississippi dermatologist John Abide, MD, was astonished when lab tests showed one of his 81-year-old patients had leprosy. Given that 30 percent of people in the rural area where he works report contact with armadillos, he now suspects cases of leprosy are underreported.

To avoid the disease, Abide recommends that you not touch, handle or eat armadillos and avoid any souvenirs made from armadillo carcasses.


Birds aren’t the only source of salmonella, a bacterium that can cause diarrhea, vomiting, fever, chills and stomach cramps. Dogs, cats and “pocket pets” like chinchillas, hedgehogs, mice and rats can carry the germ, too. But amphibians and reptiles — especially tiny turtles — are a bigger problem. The CDC has reported hundreds of illnesses linked to small turtles, and most of the victims were children.

The CDC warns that no one should buy a turtle smaller than 4 inches, and that children under 5 shouldn’t handle or be exposed to small turtles at all, even in the classroom. 

Related: 9 Surprising Places Salmonella Bacteria Lurk


A parasite that reproduces in cats can turn into a health threat for humans who aren’t careful. Infection with the parasite, which can be contracted by handling cat waste, is usually harmless for healthy people. But the parasite can be dangerous for people who have weakened immune systems or pregnant women. (Children who are exposed to it in the womb can develop hearing loss, blindness and mental disabilities.)

An otherwise healthy person infected with toxoplasmosis may develop flu-like symptoms if they’re affected at all. But someone whose immune system is compromised may suffer from headaches, confusion, poor coordination, nausea, vomiting, fever and seizures.

Pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems shouldn’t handle cat litter and should avoid touching (or adopting) stray cats.

Related: Toxoplasmosis: How Big Is the Risk to Cat Owners?

Fish tank granuloma

Yes, it’s even possible to catch germs from fish. Many fish and aquariums harbor a type of bacteria that can cause skin infections that can leave blisters and ulcers that last for months and even years. The most common way to get the infection is by cleaning an aquarium when you have open cuts or wounds on your hands.

If your hand has a cut, save the aquarium cleaning for another day. Or another person. Wear gloves whenever cleaning out an aquarium or handling fish.


An outbreak of this rare but potentially fatal disease at Yosemite National Park occurred recently when four campers were infected at the park’s Curry Village tent cabins. Two of them died. The virus is spread by deer mice and other rodents, typically through urine and droppings in sheds, barns, garages and tent cabins in rural areas. (Common house mice rarely if ever carry the virus.)

To avoid breathing in the virus while camping, infectious disease expert Charles Chiu, MD, PhD, of the University of California at San Francisco recommends not pitching tents near logs, airing out cabins and tents for at least 30 minutes upon arrival, sealing all food and garbage cans tightly and cleaning floors and surfaces with a solution of one part bleach to 10 parts water (use gloves and wear a dust mask). He recommends against sweeping or vacuuming cabins because it will stir up the dust.

Plague (Black Death)

Today the scourge of the Middle Ages is a relatively rare disease, but about seven cases of the flea-spread illness crop up in the United States every day. In 2015 one person died from the plague, two people in Colorado developed it after having contact with the owner of an infected dog and two other people fell ill with it after visiting Yosemite National Park. The park shut down its Tuolumne Meadows Campground after two dead squirrels there were found to be infected with the plague.

County health officials in Colorado suggest these simple precautions to avoid the plague: Don’t feed squirrels or other wild animals, avoid touching sick or dead wild animals and, if you have a pet, keep it flea-free.

Chris Woolston, M.S. is a freelance writer and editor who specializes in science, health and travel. A reformed biologist, Woolston says, he studied algae and nitrogen dynamics in Antarctic lakes before the Science Writing Program propelled him out of the lab. He is a contributing editor at Nature.com, a former staff writer for Time Inc.’s Hippocrates magazine, and co-author of Generation Extra Large (Perseus). He lives in Billings, Mt., with his wife – novelist Blythe Woolston – and their two children.