Pets are beloved, but can make you sick

Last summer, a man in Colorado went through a sad ritual known to many pet owners. He had to have his pit bull terrier euthanized after the dog fell suddenly ill.Four days later, the man became very sick too, with a fever and bloody cough. But it would take health investigators many days to make the connection: The dying dog had passed a potentially lethal infection to his owner – and up to three other people.The illness: pneumonic plague, the respiratory version of an illness best known for killing millions of people in the Middle Ages.According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the case was highly unusual. Only one previous dog-to-human plague case has ever been reported. And, thanks to modern antibiotics, the dog owner and the other stricken people all survived.But the incident illustrates an under-appreciated fact, says Jason Stull, an assistant professor of veterinary preventive medicine at The Ohio State University: While pets can be delightful and can even improve human health, they can harm our health, too.”Potentially, animals can carry and give to us over 70 different kinds of diseases,” says Stull, who recently co-authored a review of risks for pet owners in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.Those risks include bacterial, parasitic, fungal and viral infections. Some are diseases most people have heard of, from rabies to “cat scratch” disease. Others, such as Campylobacter jejuni (a bacterial cause of diarrhea in people, dogs and cats) may sound exotic despite being widespread. And still others, including plague, are rare.”There is a huge range in terms of how common some of these disease are,” Stull says. “There’s also a huge range in terms of severity.”Despite the range, he and other experts say, there are some fairly simple things pet owners, their doctors and their pets’ veterinarians can do to minimize pet-to-human infection risks.Among them:Know if anyone in your house is at special riskYoung children, adults over age 65 and pregnant women generally have less robust immune systems than other people. So do people with certain illnesses, including people undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. That puts them at higher risk for getting infections from any source, including pets, Stull says.Puppies are cute, but they are more likely to carry certain diseases, such as worms, than mature dogs. (Photo: Chris Amaral, Getty Images)Pick your pets carefullyWhile puppies and kittens are cute, they are more likely than mature animals to carry certain diseases, including worms, Stull says. So they might not be great choices for households with especially vulnerable members.And more exotic pets often come with more disease risks. Salmonella is commonly carried by reptiles, amphibians and rodents. Baby chicks carry it too, which is why the practice of giving them to children as Easter presents has fallen out of favor. The Food and Drug Administration banned the sale of pet turtles with shells smaller than 4 inches because they caused so many salmonella infections in small children – who tend to put the little turtles in their mouths. In 2007, a four-month old baby in Florida died of salmonella infection from a pet turtle, the FDA says.”Parents don’t realize that these pets can look fine and still be excreting bacteria,” says Dieter Schifferli, a professor of microbiology at the University Of Pennsylvania School Of Veterinary Medicine.Keep your pets healthyMake sure they get any needed vaccines and de-worming treatments, that they have clean drinking water and food and that they see a veterinarian when sick.Practice good hygieneAt the top of the list: regular hand-washing especially after cleaning litter boxes, cages or other pet environments or cleaning up after a sick pet. Keep litter boxes away from eating and food preparation areas and regularly wash pet bedding.Discuss the pros and cons of pet ownership with your doctorThat should be more than a one-time conversation, Stull says. “People may not realize that their health risks change over time,” he says.Yet surveys show physicians rarely raise the risks of pet ownership with patients, Stull says. That can lead to potentially unwise choices, he says – such as the well-intentioned parents of a young child undergoing chemotherapy getting the child a kitten or puppy for comfort.”If patients don’t want to discuss it or forget to mention they have a pet, it’s unfortunately not very common for the doctor to ask about it,” Schifferli says. “Many MDs are not trained in these kinds of issues.”When you do discuss pets with your doctor, be sure to think about the potential benefits as well as the potential harms, Stull says.According to the CDC, those benefits can include:• Decreased blood pressure• Better cholesterol counts• Less loneliness• More opportunities for exercise• More opportunities for socializing

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