In addition to elevated liver enzymes and a low platelet count, the young man who came into the emergency room had a fever, and doctors couldn’t figure out why. Then infectious disease experts were called in.
“We take pleasure asking these questions: ‘Tell us about your animals,’” says Dr. Pranavi Sreeramoju, chief of infection prevention at Parkland Health & Hospital System.
Turns out the animal-loving young man had a dog who slept in his bed, along with his girlfriend and a pregnant goat. When the goat gave birth (on the mattress, where kids are oft delivered), something in the placenta caused the man to develop a bacteria called Coxiella burnetii. Also known as Q fever, it was treated with antibiotics.
Goat-to-human disease transmissions may not be that common around here, but Sreeramoju’s anecdote does highlight something many households face: The risk of illnesses brought on by pets in the home.
“We have lived with wolves and canis” — a genus that includes dogs and coyotes — “since we came out of the cave,” says Tammi Krecek, interim assistant dean for One Health at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. “When we brought these animals — dogs and cats — into our homes to live closely with us, we developed a new relationship, which was that some of the parasites we have or they have are transmissible.”
A pet can transmit viruses, bacteria, parasites or fungi in many ways, Sreeramoju says.
“They come from infectious saliva, from hand-to-mouth transfer of pathogens, through respiratory secretions, from scratching, from contamination with urine or objects put into our mouths,” she says.
Even, say, from dog kisses?
“A lot of people let pets kiss them, but that could be a transmission route,” says Christy Soileau, a doctor of veterinary medicine at VCA Preston Park Animal Hospital. “Dogs lick their bottom, and who’s to know if they did that two minutes before they kissed you?”
We’ll pause here for a moment in case you’d like to wash your face or rinse your mouth.
Luckily, most of the potential problems a pet might cause are treatable. Before going into specific medical issues, here are a few points to remember when it comes to staying safe.
First, Krecek says, pets, like people, need regular checkups, tests and vaccinations. Being proactive can help avoid pet-to-people medical issues or at least catch them early.
“Mostly,” Soileau says, “what we do is diagnose the condition in the pet and educate the owner that it could be transmissible from pet to human population.” Ringworm or hookworm are examples.
Second, use good hygiene.
“It all boils down to hygiene,” she says. “Wash your hands, remove pet feces” from your dwelling.
Third, research the kind of pet you’re planning to get to make sure you give it the right food and care. If you have immuno-compromised family members — young children, older adults, people who have HIV or have undergone a transplant — check with your doctor to make sure having that particular pet is OK.
“HIV-infected people should be careful to avoid stray animals,” says Sreeramoju, who is also associate professor in medicine-infectious diseases at UT Southwestern Medical Center. “When they visit shelters or pet stores, hygienic and sanitary conditions could be variable.”
In addition, those who are immuno-compromised should avoid animals less than 6 months of age, she says. “Kittens can pass toxoplasmosis to individuals. It’s a parasite and is passed from cat litter. It’s a pretty serious infection.”