Is Your Pet Making You Sick?

Your cute, cuddly pets are capable of passing more than 70 human diseases to you by way of scratches, bites, and bodily fluid contact (saliva, feces, urine, etc.).

A study conducted by Ohio State University in Columbus reviewed over 300 articles regarding infections that were transmitted to humans by companion animals.

Lead author Dr. Jason Stull of the Department of Veterinary Preventive Medicine at Ohio State University in Columbus alluded to the social and emotional support provided by our furry friends when he said, “Pets have a number of really important health benefits.”

However, owning a pet does put you at risk for a multitude of possible pet-to-human infections. Although it is an infrequent occurrence, some people are at higher risk than others.

Newborns, pregnant women, children under the age of five, elderly adults, leukemia patients, and people fighting cancer are the most vulnerable.

“The biggest issue comes down to really recognizing when individuals are at greater risk,” said Stull. Not only are these people more susceptible to infection, but they may suffer more serious forms of disease as well.

Another important factor is considering what pets to have. If you or a family member have a compromised immune system, then you should avoid taking in strays.

“We are not saying that you should get rid of the pet,” said Bruno Chomel, a researcher at University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, who was not involved in the study.

“Don’t take in a stray pet or a kitten with fleas, and if you have young toddlers, don’t take an iguana as a pet.”

Highest risk pets

These are some pets considered to be “high risk” for passing on infections:

  • Amphibians
  • Reptiles
  • Chinchillas
  • Hedgehogs
  • Rodents
  • Young chickens

Without question, cats are a definite source of infection for the Toxoplasma gondii parasite. This parasite is highly dangerous to pregnant women, and it can lead to encephalitis or meningitis, as well as causing congenital defects in unborn babies.

It pays to discuss risks with a vet and your physician

Unfortunately, because it is uncommon to see pet-to-human infection transmission, many veterinarians don’t think to ask if families have people who may be at risk, such as children with cancer. In fact, some families take on pets as a way to soothe very sick children, which could increase their risk.

“In most situations there are options for finding a pet for that household, but it requires having a conversation with physicians and veterinarians,” said Stull.

Good hygiene is extremely important

Awareness is a huge factor in limiting risks. Stull explained that the most frequent means of infection transmission is fecal-to-oral.

His team recommends using protective gloves when cleaning cages and aquariums.

They also suggest thorough handwashing after contact with pets, not allowing animals to lick faces, keeping play areas and sandboxes covered when unused, and regular sanitation of animal cages, bedding, and feeding areas.

For people with compromised immune systems and other risk factors, kittens under the age of one year should be avoided, as well as puppies under six months of age.

“Other practices will be important for all children under five years, such as strict hand washing and ensuring pets are healthy and receive preventive veterinary care,” said Stull.