In addition to delivering that most elusive unconditional love, pet ownership confers several health benefits - including lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels - and increased opportunities for exercise and socialisation.
Lucy may have overreacted after being smooched by Snoopy, but dogs and cats can transmit disease to people, either directly through licks, bites, and scratches; indirectly by carrying other infection-laden critters like fleas and ticks into the human environment, or by shedding tiny infectious organisms into our environment through faeces.
The list of diseases transmissible from dogs and cats to people is quite long, but the risk of getting sick from such conditions is low—especially if you take a few simple precautions.
Beware bites, scratches, and smooches
While it is more likely that you’ll receive germs causing human disease while shaking hands than when getting smooched by a dog, saliva from a cat or dog - delivered via an affectionate lick, an accidental or aggressive bite, or a defensive scratch - may contain organisms that can cause illness if they penetrate the skin or come in contact with the mucous membranes of the mouth, nose, or eyes.
The dog or cat that unknowingly transmits these germs usually shows no signs of illness. But once inside a human, these bacteria can cause skin infections, flu-like symptoms such as fever and chills, and more serious diseases such as meningitis.
Here are a few ways to avoid saliva-borne infections:
Socialise your pets with people so they are less likely to bite and scratch.
Thoroughly wash any bite or scratch wound with soap and water. Watch the area for swelling and redness. Puncture wounds should be seen by a doctor.
Make sure your pets are vaccinated.
Cleaning up after Fido or Felix
People can expose themselves to several nasty disease-causing agents from dog or cat droppings quite accidentally (it's fair to assume no-one does it purposely).
These agents include salmonella, a bacteria that humans more commonly get from contaminated food, and giardia, a single-celled parasite that can cause severe diarrhoea. Also, the eggs of intestinal worms - including roundworms, hookworms, and tapeworms - are commonly shed in animal faeces, and people who accidentally ingest them can become ill. Cat faeces can carry a microscopic parasite (Toxoplasma gondii) that causes enlarged lymph nodes. Infected people usually don’t show symptoms, unless they have a weak immune system. Most important, women infected with toxoplasma during pregnancy can transmit the parasite to their developing fetus.
Here are a few precautions to take:
- Make sure your pet gets an annual physical check from their vet
- If your pet develops diarrhoea, treat it promptly
- Wash your hands thoroughly after cleaning up dog or cat faeces and after gardening or exposure to soil that may contain dog or cat droppings
- If you’re pregnant, have someone else clean out the litter box.
Fleas and ticks
The fleas and ticks that get a free ride and feed on domestic dogs and cats can also feed on humans, though they prefer hairier mammals.
Follow these tips to stay insect free:
- Use a flea and tick prevention product on your pet recommended by the vet
- Check your pets for fleas and ticks regularly, even if they are on a preventive product
- If your home is flea-infested, treat the indoor environment as well as the pet
- If you find a tick on your pet or yourself, remove it promptly and wash your hands afterward.
The bottom line with pets, people, and disease is this:
- Practice good hand washing and other common-sense personal hygiene measures, and give your pets good veterinary care.