Whether they’re furry, feathered, swimming or scaled, many people consider their pets to be a part of the family. Your four-legged family members, however, can sometimes carry harmful bacteria or parasites that can make you sick.
“Most illnesses related to pets are from infectious saliva that contaminates bite wounds or skin abrasions, or hand-to-mouth transfer of microorganisms from the feces of an infected animal,” says Christen Benke, DO, a family medicine physician at Scripps Clinic.
By taking the right precautions, you can minimize the risks to your family’s health and still be able to give plenty of love to the family pet.
There is a common myth that dogs have cleaner mouths than people. However, dogs explore much of their world with their mouth and they can’t brush or floss, which means germs can linger. A dog that is infected with a disease such as rabies, pasteurella and brucella could spread the bacteria through a bite that punctures the skin, so any bites from unknown dogs should prompt a visit to a doctor.
“If you have a healthy dog, they have a healthier mouth that is less likely to spread disease,” notes Dr. Benke. “Our skin also provides an excellent barrier against all kinds of bacteria and other infections, so a simple lick from a dog is perfectly safe. Just be sure not to let your dog lick an open cut or scrape on your skin.”
For cats, many infections such as salmonella, campylobacter, cryptosporidium and giardia are spread through feces, which then can transfer to a human when the litter box is cleaned. Cats — especially those with stomach issues such as diarrhea — should have their stool examined by a vet and be treated immediately for any problems.
One of the most concerning parasitic diseases that can be transmitted from cats to humans through feces is toxoplasmosis. This parasite can be asymptomatic in cats but can be dangerous to a developing fetus. Studies indicate it causes health complications in people with a compromised immune system. Pregnant women should not clean or change a litter box, and anyone who handles the litter should carefully wash their hands after they’re done.
The most common infection related to pet reptiles is salmonella. Most reptiles such as snakes, turtles and lizards, are harboring the bacteria, which is shed in their feces. Salmonella can cause fever, diarrhea and abdominal cramps 12 to 72 hours after infection.
To protect yourself from becoming sick, it’s important to thoroughly wash your hands after handling a reptile. Small children often touch their mouth or put things into their mouths, which can put them at a higher risk of becoming infected, so it’s important to closely monitor children when they are around reptiles.
“With large reptiles hand washing may not be enough,” notes Dr. Benke. “There have been cases where salmonella has transferred onto clothing by a large reptile where it later infected small children. If children are involved, it’s better to thoroughly wash your hands and change your clothes after handling a reptile.”
With any pet, playtime can sometimes lead to scratches or bites. In most cases with a healthy pet, a simple cleansing with soap and water, a dab of antibiotic ointment and a bandage are all you need to prevent an infection. However, if the bite is from an unknown animal, or if the area around the wound turns red or swollen, this could mean an infection and it’s important to call your doctor.
Pets can also bring disease carrying insects, ticks and fleas into the home, so it’s important to keep them clean and regularly check your pet for these external parasites.
“Pets are fun and good for your health,” says Dr. Benke. “They may lower blood pressure, reduce cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and improve feelings of loneliness, while increasing opportunities for exercise, outdoor activities and socialization. The key is to keep your pet healthy, make sure they get regular checkups and to remember to regularly wash your hands.”