Illnesses that spread from pets to humans are more common than previously thought, finds a paper published this week that offers a new set of guidelines for reducing the health risks.
Young children, pregnant women, seniors and anyone with a weakened immune system, such as those undergoing chemotherapy, should be especially careful when around pets, according to the authors of the paper, which is published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.
"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," wrote co-author Jason Stull of Ohio State University and his team.
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They advise that physicians and other health care providers should ask their patients about their pets, advising them on the risks of pet ownership and how to reduce disease threats.
To that end, Stull and his colleagues created the following guidelines:
• Wear protective gloves to clean aquariums and cages and remove feces • Thoroughly wash your hands after pet contact • Discourage pets from licking your face • Cover playground boxes when not in use • Regularly clean and disinfect animal cages, feeding areas and bedding • Place litter boxes away from eating and food preparation areas • If your immune system is weakened, wait until you're fully recovered before acquiring a new pet • Regularly schedule veterinary visits for all pets • Avoid contact with exotic animals How a Virus Spreads from Bats to Humans in 10 Steps
Extra precaution is also needed when caring for reptiles and amphibians.
"Reptiles and amphibians are estimated to be responsible for 11 percent 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," explained Stull and his colleagues.
One study found that 31 percent of salmonella cases from reptiles were found in children under 5 years and 17 percent were found in children who were age 1 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," they said.
Dogs, cats and rodents can also transmit Salmonella to humans. Drug-resistant bacteria, such as Clostridium difficile and Campylobacter jejuni, also may be transmitted by these pets, as well as by reptiles and amphibians. Parasites like hookworm, roundworm and Toxoplasma can travel from pets to people. Infection can be contracted from bites, scratches, saliva and contact with feces.
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The researchers aren't suggesting that people give up their pets. Many studies over the years have shown that pet ownership offers many health benefits, and may even trigger the release of the beneficial brain chemical oxytocin, known as the "love hormone."
Sticking to the guidelines is key.
"Patients at high risk and their households should have increased vigilance of their pets' health and take precautions to reduce pathogen transmission," the authors wrote.
We can spread illnesses to our pets as well so following the guidelines will help to keep our pets healthy too.
Photo: Dog licking the face of a man. Credit: Jamie Lantzy, Wikimedia Commons