Article Claims Pets Pose Health Risks to Humans. Vet Blogger Takes Issue.

photo 2009 Nate Steiner | more info (via: Wylio)Hat tip to Michele for sending a link to an article published recently by Bloomberg. The article...

Dr. Eric Barchas  |  Feb 2nd 2011


dog on bedphoto 2009 Nate Steiner | more info (via: Wylio)
Hat tip to Michele for sending a link to an article published recently by Bloomberg. The article is titled, “Pets May Pass Illnesses to Owners.”

The article repeatedly cites Dr. Bruno Chomel, who was one of my professors in vet school. I remember Dr. Chomel as a very bright man, but I respectfully disagree with some of his suggestions in the article.

Let’s start going over some choice quotes from the article.

You might want to think twice before snuggling in bed at night with Fido or Fluffy.

According to a report published in the February issue of the public health journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, seemingly healthy pets can carry parasites, bacteria or viruses that cause mild to life-threatening illness in people.

Of the 250 zoonotic diseases — infections transmitted between animals and people — more than 100 are derived from domestic pets, said veterinarian Dr. Bruno Chomel, report co-author and professor of zoonoses at University of California School of Veterinary Medicine at Davis.

Even though disease transmission is low in comparison to how many people sleep with their pets — more than half of all U.S. pet owners — Chomel said the risks are still there.

“Having a pet in the bed is not a good idea,” he said.

For the record: I allow Buster on the bed. And I don’t worry one bit about catching anything from him. More on that in a minute. Let’s look at some cases outlined in the article.

In one case a 69-year-old man, whose dog slept under the covers with him and licked his hip replacement wound, came down with meningitis. Another incident involved a 9-year-old boy who got plague, a potentially deadly bacterial infection, from sleeping with his flea-infested cat.

If those are the worst cases that can be found, then anyone with half a bit of common sense has nothing to fear. Obviously, there are some parts of your body that your dog never should lick; eyes and surgical incisions come quickly to mind. And the 9-year-old boy most likely didn’t catch plague from the cat (although flea-ridden cats can become infected with plague). He almost certainly caught plague from the fleas, which are the known vector for the disease. If the owners had used Advantage regularly, there would have been no plague in their house.

Other infections transmitted to people after sleeping with their cat or dog, kissing them or being licked by the pet include: hookworm, ringworm, roundworm, cat scratch disease and drug-resistant staph infections, the report said.

Hookworm and especially roundworm can cause disease in people, but regularly treating your pet with a product such as Heartgard Plus (in dogs), Interceptor (in dogs or cats), Revolution (in cats) and Profender (in cats) drastically reduces the risk of worm transmission. Drug resistant staph infections usually are spread in human hospitals; pets can catch them, but they usually catch them from humans. Cat scratch disease is spread by fleas; if you use Advantage you’re not likely to get it. Ringworm, I concede, can spread to humans from pets (especially freshly adopted shelter kittens). But you’re still more likely to catch ringworm from your child’s kindergarten classmates than from your pets.

The article finally comes around to some points with which I agree:

While people need to be aware that it’s possible to get sick from a pet, the health benefits of ownership far outweigh the risks, said Dr. Peter Rabinowitz of the Yale School of Medicine . . . [o]wners can stay healthy by practicing good hygiene habits, which include washing hands with soap and hot water after handling pets, especially puppies, kittens or any aged cat or dog with diarrhea. Those “high-risk pets,” he said, are more likely to harbor an infection that could be passed to people. Also, immediately wash any area licked by a pet.

Especially surgical incisions.

To prevent and catch illnesses early, keep animals free of fleas and ticks, routinely de-worm them and have them regularly examined by a veterinarian, the report advises.

But the article then goes on to recommend measures that will be a bit hard to swallow for most of the pet lovers I know:

The authors also discourage owners from kissing their cats or dogs and sharing a bed with them.

It is true that pets can pass diseases to humans. However, healthy pets pose very little risk. Much less risk than, say, every human being you contact in your daily life.

Imagine if the article had admonished against kissing any person (that’s how mononucleosis and oral herpesvirus spread). Or against sharing office space or a home with any other person (influenza, rhinovirus, leprosy, chicken pox, legionnaire’s disease, measles, mumps, viral meningitis, lice, pinworm, tuberculosis, whooping cough, polio, MRSA). Or against eating food prepared by any other person (typhoid fever, E. coli, Campylobacter, cholera, staph exotoxicosis). Or, most dangerous of all, engaging in any type of sexual activity whatsoever (too many to count)!

The article then might well have concluded that one’s safest option is to live as a recluse who is completely isolated from other people. Of course, that would still leave one at risk for hantavirus, West Nile Virus, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Lyme disease, malaria, ehrlichiosis, amebiasis, and babesiosis.

I’d like to suggest an alternative. Accept that everything in life carries risks. One can live normally in society with other humans. And one can live, and even snuggle, with a healthy pet, just so long as you don’t allow him or her to lick your surgical incisions.