Pet Owners at Risk for Illness
Jan. 26, 2011 - Dog, cat, bird, hamster—whatever animal you share your home with just might harbor an infectious disease.
Even seemingly healthy pets can carry parasites, bacteria, or viruses that cause mild to life-threatening illness in their owners.
Of the 250 diseases that can be passed between animals and people, more than 100 can come from household pets, says researcher Bruno Chomel, D.V.M., Ph.D., at the University of California School of Veterinary Medicine.
Dr. Chomel’s research was published in the February issue of the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases. He cited a 69-year-old man whose dog slept under the covers with him and licked his hip replacement wound. The man came down with meningitis. In another incident, a 9-year-old boy picked up plague, a potentially deadly bacterial infection, from sleeping with his flea-infested cat.
But zoonotic diseases can also be passed to people who kiss their pets or are licked by them. In addition to meningitis and plague, other animal-people infections include hookworm, roundworm, and cat scratch disease.
No one really knows how many cases of these illnesses occur each year, because doctors aren’t required to report them to health authorities. But Peter Rabinowitz, M.D., of the Yale School of Medicine suspects the total may run into the millions.
"We think there are probably a lot of infections that happen and nobody really figures out that it came from the pet," Dr. Rabinowitz says.
If you’re healthy, the risk of picking up a zoonotic illness is probably low. The risk is greater for elderly adults, children under 5, people with HIV or cancer, and others with a weakened immune system.
You can stay healthy by practicing good hygiene habits, which include washing hands with soap and hot water after handling pets, especially puppies, kittens, or any cat or dog with diarrhea, Dr. Rabinowitz says. Also, immediately wash any skin area licked by a pet.
To prevent and catch illnesses early, keep your pets free of fleas and ticks, routinely de-worm them, and have them regularly examined by a veterinarian, the report advises. It also discourages pet owners from kissing their cats or dogs and sharing a bed with them.
Healthy Pets and People
Here are tips to help keep your pet healthy and to prevent the spread of disease to the rest of the household:
• Keep your pet's immunizations current.
• See a veterinarian regularly with your pet for health checkups.
• Keep your pet's bedding and living area clean.
• Feed your pet a balanced diet and avoid having your pet eat raw foods or drink out of the toilet.
• Clean cat litter boxes every day. If you’re pregnant, avoid touching cat litter, because it may contain bacteria, viruses, or parasites that can lead to infectious diseases that cause birth defects, including toxoplasmosis.
• Wash your hands thoroughly after touching animals or cleaning up animal waste. Your children should do the same.
Washing hands is especially important after handling reptiles, because reptiles may harbor bacteria called salmonella. Salmonella can cause salmonellosis, which can cause diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps.
Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.