Although they’re wonderful companions, it’s worth knowing that many pets — including dogs, cats, rodents, reptiles and amphibians — can transmit certain infectious diseases to people.
To guard against infection, here’s what pet owners should be aware of to prevent illness — particularly in those with weak immune systems, young children, pregnant women and seniors.
People with weak immune systems especially vulnerable
Surveys suggest that the general public and people at high risk for pet-associated disease are not aware of the risks associated with high-risk pet practices or recommendations to reduce them; for example, 77% of households that obtained a new pet following a cancer diagnosis acquired a high-risk pet,” says Dr Jason Stull, assistant professor, Department of Veterinary Preventive Medicine, Ohio State University in Columbus, according work published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ ).
The review explained the types of infections, how infections are transmitted from pets, prevention and the role of health care providers.
“Studies suggest physicians do not regularly ask about pet contact, nor do they discuss the risks of zoonotic diseases with patients, regardless of the patient’s immune status ,” writes writes Dr Stull, with coauthors Dr Jason Brophy, Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) and Dr J S Weese, Ontario Veterinary College.
All pets can transmit diseases to people. For instance, dogs, cats, rodents, reptiles and amphibians can transmit Salmonella, multidrug resistant bacteria (including Clostridium difficile), Campylobacter jejuni and other diseases.
Parasites such as hookworm, roundworm and Toxoplasma can also be transmitted. Infection can be contracted from bites, scratches, saliva and contact with feces.
Reptiles and amphibians can transmit disease indirectly, such as via contaminated surfaces.
“Reptiles and amphibians are estimated to be responsible for 11% of all sporadic Salmonella infections among patients less than 21 years of age, and direct contact with such animals is not required for zoonotic transmission,” write the authors.
“In one study, 31% of reptile-associated salmonellosis cases occurred in children less than 5 years of age and 17% occurred in children aged 1 year or younger; these findings highlight the heightened risk in children and the potential for reptile-associated Salmonella to be transmitted without direct contact with the animal or its enclosure.”
For healthy people, the risk of pet-associated disease is low, but vulnerable people are at risk, including newborns, children with leukemia and adults with cancer.
“Given the health benefits of animal ownership and the reluctance of patients to give up their pets, resources highlight the importance of following specific precautions,” states Dr Stull. “Patients at high risk and their households should have increased vigilance of their pets’ health and take precautions to reduce pathogen transmission.”
A few simple steps can dramatically reduce the risk.
Recommendations for reducing transmission of infection include:
wearing protective gloves to clean aquariums and cages and remove feces
proper handwashing after pet contact
discouraging pets from face licking
covering playground boxes when not in use
avoiding contact with exotic animals
regular cleaning and disinfection of animal cages, feeding areas and bedding
locating litter boxes away from areas where eating and food preparation occur
waiting to acquire a new pet until immune status has improved
regularly scheduling veterinary visits for all pets
Physicians and other health care providers should enquire about pets and repeat questions in light of illness in vulnerable people, as well as advise on the risks of pet ownership and how to reduce risks of disease.
The authors also recommend that veterinarians can be a resource for physicians seeking more information on zoonotic infections and risks associated with unusual pets.