Can My Pet Make Me Sick?
For pet owners, caring means sharing. We share our lives and homes with our pets, as well as our sorrows and joys. It is simply the nature of any good owner–pet relationship.
When it comes to disease, however, sharing is not such a good thing. Pet owners need not panic, however. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), while pets can transmit diseases to people—what’s known as zoonotic disease—proper veterinary care can prevent this from ever being a problem for you or your family.
According to Dr. John Dunn, an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer at the CDC, the best way to prevent any disease from passing from pets to people is by maintaining good hygiene and thoroughly washing hands with soap and water. Providing regular veterinary care for your pets will also minimize the risk. “After all, if your pet does not have a disease in the first place, he cannot pass it on to you,” says Dr. Elizabeth Lundgren of the Veterinary Information Network. Your veterinarian can guide you in the proper precautions to take for preventing a host of diseases in your pet.
FACT OR FICTION?
“People think they can catch everything from pets, but they can’t,” says Dr. Lundgren. “People often have a distorted view of what they are at risk for, but pet-related diseases are not as significant as people think.” For example, getting strep throat from cats is a myth.
Likewise, pregnant women do not need to worry excessively about getting toxoplasmosis from cleaning their cat’s litterbox. “People are much more likely to get toxoplasmosis from contaminated soil picked up during gardening or from eating undercooked meat,” says Dr. Lundgren.
Unless a pregnant woman is immune-compromised, she can wear disposable latex gloves to change the litterbox herself and then wash her hands thoroughly afterward.
Despite the implication from the Ted Nugent song, most people who get scratched by cats do not get cat scratch fever. We have only recently begun to understand cat scratch fever, and some things are still unknown. What is certain is that the cause of the disease is a bacterium, which can infect kittens and remain in them for a long time. It appears that kittens become infected through flea bites. The bacterium does not make the kitten or adult cat sick, but when an infected cat scratches a person, the bacterium can potentially be transmitted. Transmission can be prevented by controlling fleas, so pet owners who use topical flea preventives will most likely never even have to think about cat scratch disease, much less scratch from it.
Rabies is one of the most dangerous zoonotic diseases, usually transmitted by saliva after an animal bite. However, because rabies vaccination is legally required in the United States today, the number of cases has been drastically reduced. Most result from wildlife such as skunks, raccoons, and bats—not household pets.
Brucellosis can be transmitted from dogs to people, but it is very rare; you are more likely to contract it from cattle, sheep, goats, or pigs. Illness stemming from owning birds is also rare. Most bird-to-human transmissions, such as avian flu, are from poultry or wild birds, not pets. While dogs and cats can transfer Campylobacter through their feces, most people get campylobacteriosis from contaminated food.
If a veterinarian has examined your pet and declared him to be healthy, the risks of infection are low. “An important component is to provide routine veterinary care for your pet. This includes checking for parasitic infections and following your veterinarian’s instructions,” says Dr. Dunn. “That ongoing care is very important.”
“Parasitic diseases, such as roundworms, hookworms, and tapeworms, are common in pets and can infect people,” says Dr. Dunn. Ringworm is a fungus, not a worm that crawls, although the itching it causes may make you feel like crawling out of your skin. People, dogs, cats, cows, goats, pigs, and horses can get this contagious annoyance. Ringworm looks like a rash in a reddish, hairless ring. Treatment in humans can be as simple as antifungal cream. “The trick is to clear it up in everyone simultaneously to avoid being reinfected,” says Dr. Lundgren.
Puppies and kittens are more likely to have hookworms and roundworms than adult dogs and cats are. For both types of worms, transmission can occur through infected feces that contain the worm’s eggs or larvae. While adults do not usually eat dirt off the ground, kids sometimes do, and so this problem is seen mostly in youngsters.
Tapeworms can jump ship between species, too. While most of us try not to swallow fleas, it is conceivable—but unlikely—that these bitty bugs will jump right off your pet and into your mouth. Prevention is simple: Have your veterinarian give your pet a dewormer and run fecal exams regularly to check for parasites, and be sure to clean up feces from the yard.
Reptiles such as snakes, lizards, and turtles, as well as baby chicks and ducklings, are most likely to pass Salmonella to people. Dogs, cats, pet birds, and horses can also pass Salmonella in their feces, although most animals do not show any signs of infection. People usually get it from eating contaminated food, such as such as raw beef, poultry, or eggs, although it can be transmitted by imported fruits and vegetables.
The mainstay of prevention for bacterial bugs is to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after coming into contact with animal feces, and in the case of reptiles, preferably with antibacterial soap. Wear disposable gloves while cleaning any reptile enclosure or tank that houses fish or frogs.
Melissa Kaplan, author of Iguanas for Dummies and the reptile care Web site www.anapsid.org, recommends disposing of water used by reptiles by flushing it down the toilet and spraying the rim and inside of the bowl with a disinfectant. “Regularly clean and disinfect water bowls, rocks, branches, and anything else the reptile touches,” says Kaplan. Bowls can be cleaned with the same soap and disinfectants used for the enclosure.
Kaplan adds that while antibacterial cleaners do inhibit existing bacteria from replicating, they do not kill the bacteria. “To kill bacteria on a surface, you have to disinfect it. Household disinfectants need to be left on the surface for at least 10 minutes to kill normal household bugs,” Kaplan explains. “Unfortunately, most disinfectants are sprayed on and then immediately wiped off, negating the product’s antibacterial action.” A good rule of thumb is to leave any antibacterial product on (or leave the item soaking in a disinfectant solution) for at least 10 minutes to ensure that the antibacterial agents have a chance to work.
While iguanas love a nice bath, they should have their luxurious soak in the bathtub, not the kitchen sink. The bathtub should then be disinfected with bleach. Food bowls from your reptiles, frogs, or turtles should similarly be cleaned in a utility sink rather than your kitchen sink.
Preventing disease in your pet with regular veterinary care is the best way to avoid disease transmission from Fido or Fluffy to you. Beyond that, good hygiene and diligent hand washing will allow you and your best friend to continue to share everything except diseases—just the way it is supposed to be.
KEEPING YOUR PETS AT THEIR PEAK
The very best way to avoid disease transmission from your pet to you is by keeping your pet as healthy as possible. For the brightest-eyed and bushiest-tailed pets:
- Adopt from an animal shelter or purchase your pet from a reputable pet store or breeder.
- Bring new pets to your veterinarian right away for a wellness check, and schedule regular veterinary visits, including vaccination and deworming, during the life of the pet.
- Feed your pet a balanced diet. Do not let him eat raw foods or drink out of the toilet.
- Clean your pet’s living area at least once a week, and pick up feces from the yard as soon as possible.
- Clean your cat’s litterbox daily, and place the dirty litter in a plastic bag for disposal.
- Cover sandboxes when not in use, and avoid allowing children to play in parks, playgrounds, or other public areas that have been contaminated with dog or cat feces.
- Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after handling or cleaning up after your pet, especially if he is a reptile.
WHO IS MOST AT RISK?
While many of the parasites and diseases people can contract from pets are relatively insignificant, everything changes for people with compromised immune systems. People with HIV or other autoimmune diseases, people who are undergoing chemotherapy or taking a drug called prednisone, or those who have just had a transplant should not clean up after pets, particularly their feces.
“The people more likely to get Salmonella and other infections include children under the age of 5 and people who have compromised immune systems,” says Dr. John Dunn, an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer at the CDC. The good news is that people with compromised immune systems do not have to give up their pets. However, CDC recommends that immune-compromised people thoroughly wash their hands with soap and water after touching animals, particularly before eating. They should not feed raw meat to their pets or handle pets with diarrhea. The best advice for them is not to touch any animal feces at all.
“If you have a compromised immune system and are thinking about getting a new pet, look for one that is in good health, is over 6 months of age, was not a stray, and has been treated by a veterinarian,” advises Dr. Dunn. Avoid letting your pet kiss you on the mouth or on an open cut. Keep pets’ toenails trimmed, and control the flea population.
If you visit someone with pets, take the same precautions you would at home. Also, do not touch reptiles such as snakes, lizards, and turtles, which are more likely to carry bacteria that can easily pass between species.