Today’s pets have become treasured family members and as their status has risen in households across the United Stated so have their privileges. With the daily unconditional love that they give us, we’ve become more permissive with Fido or Missy. We don’t give a second thought when they sprawl across our laps while we lounge on the sofa and share a lick or two from a bowl of ice cream, or when they become our bed companions. However, by allowing our dogs or cats to share our foods and beds are we also inviting their unwanted germs or will they get sick from us when we’re down and out with a cold or the flu?
According to the Center of Disease Control (CDC) although both dogs and cats may pass germs to people, the simple act of petting your beloved pet will not make you sick. However to best protect yourself from germs, and this is where common sense always prevails, make it a habit to thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water after contact with dog or cat saliva or even their feces.
Sometimes a good hand washing simply isn’t enough and pet owners should be aware that our canine and feline family members carry a variety of germs that can make us ill. A common example is Campylobacter found in puppies’ stools which can cause diarrhea in humans. On the rare side of the spectrum, dogs–not cats–in urban or rural areas might be exposed to the bacterium that causes Leptospirosis, which can be fatal to both dogs and humans if not treated early. These diseases that are transferable from animals to people are known as Zoonoses.
“One of the most common zoonotic illnesses we see in pets in New York City is Giardia,” says Dr. Lucy O’Byrne, an area veterinarian. “Giardia is a parasite that causes vomiting and diarrhea–sometimes it can be very severe.” Dogs can pick up the bacteria from city streets or from the local dog run very easily. Cats that come from a shelter and then go outdoors can also get the bug. “The good news is that giardia is easily treated and managed,” says O’Byrne. “We have a specific test that allows us to diagnose it quickly right at the hospital and start medication right away.”
To prevent the spread of giradia, leptospirosis, and other diseases found in urine and feces, veterinarians tell their clients to practice vigilante hygiene at home. Clean all accidents with disinfectants such as a Clorox and water solution; wash hands after walking the dog, cleaning out the litter box, and before meals.
Another zoonotic disease of concern is rabies, which is transmitted by saliva through a bite wound. Pet owners are required by law to vaccinate their pets against the virus. In a study conducted by the CDC from the years 2000 to 2004, more cats than dogs were reported rabid in the United States. Many of these cases were associated with bites from raccoons in the eastern part of the country. The infection in cats might also be attributed to fewer vaccination laws, leash laws, and their roaming habits. The New York State Department of Health Rabies Laboratory recently released its 2008 statistical study reporting 647 dogs examined for the virus with only one incident of infection, and 1,383 cats that were examined of which 22 tested positive for the virus.
But can humans get sick from airborne germs or is it solely by touch? According to O’Byrne there are very few diseases that are airborne. Touch is usually the form that bacteria can be transferred in either direction from animals to owners. Typically this isn’t a problem unless there’s a cut on the skin and bacteria gets in, causing an infection. Dog lovers who might be worried about getting the much reported “dog flu” will be relieved to learn that to date there has been no evidence of canine influenza transmission from dogs to humans.
However, if your dog does come down the with the flu, Dr. Melinda J. Grove of Glen Animal Hospital in East Norwich, N.Y. tells her patients that the virus is treated mostly with supportive care, and antibiotics are used if there are any bacterial infections. She adds, “People sometimes confuse this with kennel cough. Kennel cough is actually caused by the bacterium, Bordetella Bronchiseptica, that’s sometimes complicated by other viral diseases.” To determine why your pooch is coughing, a culture will be taken to determine the bacterium and from there the proper antibiotic treatments will be prescribed.
If your pet predilection is more towards cold-blooded creatures who spend their days swimming and basking in a tank, be aware that some reptiles can asymptomatically carry salmonella bacterium says Bruce Lowder of the New York Reptile Expo. “Years ago, there were many cases due to the small turtles commonly kept as pets in small unfiltered and unsanitary containers.”
To reduce salmonella outbreaks in reptiles and possible transmission to humans, Lowder recommends feeding the animals in a different container to avoid contaminating its living quarters with rotting food. He adds, “In general, simple hand washing will eliminate virtually any risk of passing germs from reptiles to humans. Since many pet reptiles are also captive-bred, they’re not exposed to many microbes or pathogens, further reducing the risk of carrying anything potentially dangerous to people.”
In some cases, hand washing and cleaning with disinfectants is simply not enough. Some people are more likely to get diseases from pets. People with an undeveloped or weak immune system have a greater chance of getting ill from pets and these include infants, children younger than five years old, transplant patients, people infected with the HIV/Aids virus and others who are being treated for cancer.
Finally to sleep or not to sleep with our pets, how safe is it? We asked our expert veterinarians, and unfortunately, it’s not an easy answer. There are two schools of thought. On one hand, and your pet will appreciate this point of view, Dr. O’Byrne says, “Good news! It’s not unhealthy to allow pets to sleep on your bed. In fact, there are many studies showing people who have pets–not necessarily in the bed–are healthier and live longer.” However, if pets do climb onto the bed a nap or a full eight hours, make sure your dog or cat is free of fleas and ticks. If they go outside, both dogs and cats should be on a preventative and if they’ve enjoyed a romping or stalking in the woods, check them thoroughly before it’s time for a night time snuggle and snooze.
On the other hand, Dr. Grove suggests in preventing the possibility of potential transmissions of any of the zoonoses, pets and humans are better off in their respective beds. She also reminds us to keep our pets’ yearly visits, update their vaccinations, and give them monthly supplements and preventatives to reduce the risk of getting any type of internal parasite and spreading it to family members, human or other pets.
The most important thing for all pet owners to know is that their veterinarians are there to answer all their pet health questions and as Dr. Grove says, “We help you keep your companion animal bond strong–just not in your bed.”