Zoonotic diseases are the kind of infections that are transmitted from animals to humans. Many pet owners are unaware of the possibility of acquiring a severe illness from their beloved pets and it is this lack of information that could be deadly. To remedy this information gap, let's revisit three of the top preventable zoonotic diseases.

• Rabies

Rabies is a virus that affects mammals and is often transmitted to humans through the bite of an affected animal. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most cases in the U.S. occur in wild animals, such as raccoons, skunks, bats and foxes. Sadly, this virus remains a threat worldwide (especially developing nations) and kills thousands of people every year.

Rabies has an affinity for the central nervous system and once it reaches the brain it is fatal. Unfortunately, early symptoms of rabies in people are similar to that of many other illnesses and it might be undiagnosed until it is too late to intervene. These symptoms include fever, headache, and general weakness or discomfort. As the disease progresses, more specific symptoms appear and may include insomnia, confusion, slight or partial paralysis, hallucinations, agitation, hypersalivation (increase in saliva), inability to swallow, and hydrophobia (fear of water). If you or your pet gets bitten or infected with rabies, a series of vaccinations given immediately post exposure will kill the virus and save your life.

World Rabies Day is an international awareness campaign celebrated annually Sept. 28, the anniversary of the death of Louis Pasteur (who invented the first efficacious rabies vaccine).

• Leptospirosis

This is a bacterial disease that your dog might acquire just walking outdoors and getting exposed to raccoon/rat/mice wet urine containing the spirochete organisms. This bacteria enters the skin and spreads to the bloodstream causing a wide range of symptoms (mimicking the flu, including a fever). In 10 percent of the infected dogs, the symptoms become severe including liver or kidney failure. The pet owner can contract this disease by being exposed to body fluids from the infected dogs (think being licked, cleaning after them). A simple test done at the veterinary clinic can determine whether your dog is sick because of that bacteria. Dogs that live outdoors, hunt or swim in lakes should be vaccinated. Recently, we have noticed an increase in cases in which dogs were mostly indoor, urban dogs. We suspect walking on or eating wet grass is the at-risk activity responsible for these infections.

• E. coli

This bacteria has caused many human deaths, mostly children. This is found in the feces of infected animals and it is transmitted from mother to puppies in cases of filthy living conditions. There have been many outbreaks blamed on petting zoos in which kids did not sanitize their hands after petting the animals and became very sick. Most early symptoms are vomiting, bloody diarrhea, abdominal pain, and dehydration. If E. coli get systemic, you and/or your pet will develop severe pain, fever and eventually kidney failure. This is easily preventable by good hygiene and is treatable with antibiotics.

Dr. Mitsie Vargas is at Orchid Springs Animal Hospital in Winter Haven. She can be reached at drv@osahvets.