What's a pet owner to do?
Most U.S. households have pets, and more than half of those cats and dogs are allowed to sleep in their owner's beds, Drs. Bruno Chomel, a professor at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine, and Ben Sun, chief veterinarian for California's Department of Health, say in a study to be published in next month's issue of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) Emerging Infectious Diseases.
The authors, both experts in zoonoses, which are diseases or infections transmitted from animals to humans, reported that "the risk for transmission of zoonotic agents by close contact between pets and their owners through bed sharing, kissing or licking is real and has even been documented for life-threatening infections such as plague, internal parasites" and other serious diseases.
How many of us admit to others that we sleep with our furry friends? Many of us do, according to the study.
Among dog owners, 53 percent consider their dog to be a member of the family, and 56 percent of those dog owners admit they sleep with their dog next to them, the researchers reported.
We're not just talking about teacup yorkies and chihuahuas here. Yes, the study says, most are small dogs, but 41 percent are medium-sized, and one out of three are large. Also, consider this fact, which the authors attribute to the American Kennel Club: Women were more likely than men to allow their dogs to share their beds.
As strange as it may be to canine lovers, more people have cats than dogs, and these felines also carry disease. This study and several others show that disease from cats is far more prevalent, and often more serious.
The number of cats snuggling up with their owner is far greater, which may explain the larger number of people acquiring feline-spawned diseases, Chomel explained.
Take cat scratch disease, for example. The bacterial infection, caused by Bartonella henselae, comes from infected fleas and flea feces and is transmitted to humans, often simply by a cat strolling across a food preparation area that isn't disinfected before food is placed on it. Mostly, the victims of cat scratch disease are children, infected by the scratch, lick or bite of a cat. The pathogen can cause swelling of the lymph nodes and sometime lethal damage to the liver, kidney and spleen of humans.
The CDC estimates that more than 20,000 people can contract cat scratch disease a year, but the federal disease agency could offer no information on the number of deaths.
Risks and Benefits
The CDC reports that pets may lower blood pressure, reduce cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and decrease feelings of loneliness, while increasing opportunities for exercise, outdoor activities and socialization.
Medical studies going back at least 30 years have documented the clinical value of pets to cardiac patients, those hospitalized with mental illnesses and the elderly.
Sharing our resting hours with our pets may be a source of psychological comfort, but because pets can bring a wide range of zoonotic pathogens into our environment, sharing is also associated with risks, the authors of the current study reported.
- A 9-year-old boy from Arizona got the plague because he slept with his flea-infested cat.
- A 48-year-old man and his wife repeatedly contracted MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), which their physicians eventually attributed to their dog. The animal "routinely slept in their bed and frequently licked their face," the California experts reported.
But disease can easily be transmitted by your pet kissing you. The study cited cases where a woman died of septic shock and renal failure after her cat, with whom she slept, licked open sores on her feet and toes. In another case, a 44-year-old man died of infection after his German shepherd puppy licked open abrasions on his hands.
Your pet's food can also be a source of disease. A study published last August in the journal Pediatrics tracked an outbreak of salmonella in 79 people between 2006 and 2008 that was caused by contaminated meat in dry cat and dog food.
Half of the victims were children, who CDC investigators said "might also have played with the pet food and then put their hands -- or the food itself -- in their mouths."
The disease also could have come from pets who rolled or played in their feces, where salmonella can stay alive for up to 12 weeks.
Where do our pets they pick up these diseases? Fleas are a likely starting point. And most of your pets will eat the droppings of other animals.
Take a dog to any beach, park or trail through the woods almost anywhere and watch the speed at which it will find something really foul-smelling and dead in which to roll.
Cats usually do their own killing for food and fun. And just think about the infectious bugs that laced the dead and dying rodents, birds and other critters they eat or try to bring into the home.
What Can Be Done?
The two senior veterinarians say several things can be done to reduce the threat of disease. The main one is for owners to ensure the health of their pets by seeking regular professional checkups and care. Other points include:
- Persons, especially young children or immunocompromised persons, should be discouraged from sharing their bed with their pets or regularly kissing their pets.
- Any area licked by a pet, especially an open wound, should be immediately washed with soap and water.
- Pets should be kept free of parasites, especially fleas; routinely de-wormed; and regularly examined by a veterinarian.
- Preventive measures such as administering anthelmintic drugs for flatworms -- and drugs for flukes, tapeworms and other parasites -- to puppies or kittens within the first few weeks after birth or, even better, to their mothers during the last few weeks of pregnancy. This could help prevent most cases of human toxocariasis, which can cause severe and sometimes permanent vision problems for young children.
Meanwhile, start practicing saying "Get off the bed. I mean it this time."