Could your pets be making you sick?

June 26, 2008 6:18:05 AM PDT
They greet you when you step inside the door, cuddle up with you when you feel bad, and provide some vital stress-relief. But pets can pass along some diseases to humans.

Many owners consider their household pets family members, but just like their human counterparts, these animals can spread illnesses to people.

Pet-to-human transmission is called zoonosis, and highly publicized examples include disease that's passed from nonhousehold animals to humans, such as mad cow disease and bird flu.

"Good Morning America" contributor Dr. Marty Becker gives you tips on how avoid getting sick from your pet.

How do diseases get passed from our cats and dogs to us?

It's not a pretty picture. Disease can cross a bridge between you and your pet on a flea or tick, or through bacteria or other organisms found on the body of your pet or in your pet's waste. We come into contact with these when we care for our furry pals. Grooming them, petting them and cleaning up after them exposes us, but it isn't difficult to safeguard yourself and your loved ones once you have the facts.

What are some of the more common diseases passed from animals to people?

The most common by far are diseases spread by parasites, such as fleas, ticks or worms. A new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 14 percent of the U.S. population is infected with toxocara, or internal roundworms, contracted from dogs and cats.

From roundworms, people can contract visceral larval migrans, which is a potentially serious disease that can affect the eyes or other organs. Symptoms can include fever, cough, loss of appetite, weakness and lung congestion.

Another common problem is cat scratch fever, which is just what it sounds like. It's an infection caused by a cat bite or scratch. Bacteria found on a cat's nails or claws is transmitted through the scratch and can cause high fever, loss of appetite and swollen glands.

If you're a healthy person, cat scratch fever is mild and if you wash out the scratch or bite with soap and water it can resolve itself. But it can be very dangerous for people with weakened or immature immune systems.

Contracting salmonella also is a potential problem and the most frequently reported cause of foodborne illnesses in humans. It's in the news now because of contaminated tomatoes. However, it can also be passed through animal waste, and may cause symptoms like fever, vomiting, diarrhea and exhaustion. The biggest pet culprits are reptiles, so it is important to practice excellent hygiene when caring for them.

And then there are protozoal infections. Protozoa are single-celled organisms that can be found on undercooked or raw meat, or unwashed or undercooked vegetables. Your pets have frequent contact with all those things and can pass the protozoa on to you, which can cause diarrhea that can sometimes be severe.

Who is most at risk to catch a disease from a pet?

Kids have the greatest risk of catching a disease from a pet because they not only play with their pets but often come into contact with an animal's waste, which can be hidden in the grass in the yard or in the sandbox. Inevitably, little hands that play in the grass or sand end up in little mouths.

Pregnant women, the elderly and anyone with a weakened immune system also are in danger. This includes people undergoing cancer treatment, or recent organ recipients anyone with an autoimmune disease.

Unfortunately, people with compromised immune systems are often mistakenly advised to remove cats from the household to reduce the risk of infection. This is particularly distressing for people going through a serious illness, who often need the love of their pets to help them get through this tough time. However, people are highly unlikely to become infected from direct contact with their cats and with simple, proper precautions, there is no danger at all.

What should people do to stay safe?

The key for owners is cleanliness. Wash your hands before and after handling your pets. Avoid letting them lick your face, your plates, utensils, etc.

Minimize your contact with high-pet traffic areas doggy parks or doggy potty areas at highway rest stops. If you do go to them, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly after you leave.

Also, keep your surroundings clean. Scoop the poop in the street and in your yard. Make sure the area where your children play is poop-free. Cover up the sandbox when it's not in use, which will keep it parasite and poop-free. But if you're pregnant or have an immune deficiency, make sure someone else does the scooping.

Finally, take bites and scratches seriously. Clean them thoroughly and see a doctor if you experience any irritation.

What should I do to protect my pets?

First of all, keep you pets in good health with semi-annual visits to the vet to keep their vaccines current and to make sure they are parasite-free. Also, make sure that you use year-round parasite control throughout your pet's life, regardless of your pet's age or where you live.

Keep your pet's environment clean by scooping the poop out of your cat's litter box every day. Also, deep clean the litter box periodically with scalding hot water and detergent, and replace that litter box at least once a year.