Owning a Pet? Precautions Needed to Manage the Health Risks

As a pet parent, having a pet isn’t about ownership but the human-animal bond. It is about the health benefits that unconditional love brings. The wagging dog tail or contented cat purr that greets you when you come home is priceless.

Key takeaways:
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    Pets help improve mental and cardiovascular health, improve social connections and decrease loneliness.
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    Know the risks of pet ownership and how to protect yourself.
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    Using caution, practicing proper hygiene, and keeping pets healthy, you can remain healthy and enjoy the human-animal bond.

However, there can be some inherent health risks associated with pet ownership. Knowing the risks ahead may help you decide what pet is right for your family. Remembering that pets bring joy and amusement to our lives, the benefits often outweigh the risks.

Health risks to pet parents

Generally speaking, many pets are safe for most people. Those who are immunosuppressed (cancer, certain diseases, on immunosuppressive drugs), those who are pregnant, the young, and the elderly are more susceptible to illnesses. This holds for possible infections or issues with pets.

Risks vary with the species of interest. For example, Salmonella infections are most commonly associated with reptiles and birds but also may be found in rodents and other small mammals like hedgehogs. Farm animals such as goats, cattle, sheep, and pigs can also carry this bacteria. While bites from dogs can be serious and may need medical care, cat bites become infected in hours and always require evaluation immediately. Scratches can also cause injury, even infection.

Teaching children and all family members proper hygiene when handling any species helps keep loved ones safe. If a pet bites or scratches someone, wounds must be washed well with soap and water and evaluated by a healthcare professional.

Health risks of pet ownership

Even those with underlying health conditions benefit from pets, and we want to weigh risks with benefits. Nevertheless, there are some risks associated with pet ownership.

  • Infectious diseases (transmissible from animals to humans).
  • Scratches or bites.
  • Allergies – pet dander and fur; some food/feed used to care for animals.
  • Physical risks – e.g., injury when walking a dog, falling.

Health benefits of pet ownership

While there are risks in having pets, many people feel that they are a part of their family. They provide pleasure and entertainment and love you despite your faults. Additionally, studies show several health benefits, including:

Cardiovascular (heart health) benefits such as decreased blood pressure.

Lower cholesterol and triglycerides.

Improved physical health (depending on the pet you select, weight loss, and overall increased exercise may aid in improving health outcomes).

Less depression, anxiety, and overall improved mental health.

Provide social connections and lessen loneliness – walking a dog helps you meet your neighbors.

Stress reduction (physiological and chemical changes in stress hormones occur in the presence of animals).

How can you get sick from your pet?

Despite the benefits of pets, there are inherent risks. Transmission of diseases can occur through a variety of means, including:

  • Bites
  • Scratches
  • Direct contact - mucous membranes
  • Saliva
  • Urine
  • Blood or other secretions
  • Ingesting feces
  • Inhaling droplets or aerosolized particles
  • Bite of a mosquito, tick, flea, or another related insect vector (carrier of disease)

Specific disease concerns with pets

Fleas, ticks, mites, roundworms, hookworms, rabies, oh my! The reality is that pets can infect family members with diseases.

One disease with definite links to human health problems includes toxoplasmosis, a protozoal infection (single-celled parasite), and a not uncommon concern in women if they become infected while pregnant. Other diseases of concern include Salmonella and other bacteria, such as E. coli or Campylobacter, which may naturally reside in the gut of some species. Finally, infectious parasites like roundworms and hookworms can uncommonly cause problems in people, especially children.

Fleas and ticks are nuisances but can also carry diseases. Fleas prefer to be on the host species (dogs/cats) but will bite humans, with some people having an allergy to that bite. Thus, preventing these ectoparasites (external parasites) in your pets can also protect you.

Toxoplasmosis, pregnancy, and immunocompromised

Toxoplasmosis, aka toxo, can be acquired through:

  • Contact with domestic cats (via feces).
  • Contaminated environments (soil).
  • Eating improperly cleaned fruits/veggies from a garden.
  • Ingesting undercooked or improperly cleaned food such as tainted meats, or shellfish.
  • Drinking contaminated water.
  • Organ transplants (though rare).
  • Transmission from mother to child in utero (while pregnant).

People infected with Toxoplasma gondii with normal immune systems generally feel no illness (subclinical disease) or develop a mild, flu-like, self-limiting fever and swollen lymph nodes. However, pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems can develop neurologic effects and problems with the eyes and other organs.

Why even mention toxo? The definitive host (the main host which the parasite reproduces within) is the cat. Litter Box maintenance and handling expose pet owners to this disease as the parasite is shed in the cat’s feces. Cats generally remain healthy (unless underlying illness or immunosuppressed), with most cats acting as carriers.

Toxo becomes an issue when a person without exposure to toxo (negative) gets pregnant and then gets infected during that pregnancy or within 3 months of conception. Toxo causes birth defects and can cause inflammation in the fetus’s brain or spinal cord (encephalitis, meningitis).

Recommendations for those wanting to become pregnant or newly pregnant

Speak with your physician and get tested – If you are already positive for toxo (meaning you have had exposure) before you get pregnant, there is no concern as it seems to only cause ill effects to the fetus if negative at conception. Future pregnancies, once positive, are not at risk.

However, suppose you are negative and plan to get pregnant. In that case, you should use caution and avoid infection for a minimum of 3 months before attempting to conceive.

Additionally, if you are negative before getting pregnant or once pregnancy has been confirmed, you will want to take measures to prevent exposure.

If you develop toxo while pregnant, speak with your physician to determine the best treatment for you and your unborn baby.

It is easy to protect yourself from toxo, even while pregnant.

Even if you have cats, you can still avoid toxo transmission. Because toxo takes one to five days to become infectious after the cat poops, daily changing the litter box is a simple measure to minimize the risk of transmission to you and your family members.

Additional steps may further protect one from toxo infection. Avoid petting stray cats or adopting young kittens while pregnant or immunocompromised. Additionally, keeping cats indoors may help decrease the risk. Though most cats are already exposed before adoption/purchase. Avoid handling the litter, wear gloves, and always wash your hands well after handling the litter box. Finally, wash fruits and vegetables diligently before eating and ensure all food is fully cooked.

Other infectious diseases we could get from pets

Parasites

Yes, animals can carry diseases and transmit them to humans. Zoonotic diseases (or those ailments that can be transmitted from animals to people) do exist. However, many are easily preventable by being educated and aware of the risks and how to prevent the diseases in your pet or manage them when they arise.

Monthly preventatives for your pets, such as flea and tick prevention and heartworm prevention (which also often protects against heartworms and roundworms, 2 intestinal parasites contagious to people) protect both pet and pet parent.

If your pet develops diarrhea, ensure your vet checks for parasites and that you always practice proper hygiene when cleaning up after your pet.

Rabies

One final disease worth mentioning, rabies, also poses a risk to human health. Rabies is a fatal viral illness. Thankfully, in the U.S., the dog rabies variant has been eradicated through national leash laws and vaccination programs. However, we still naturally have rabies in wildlife, especially raccoons, bats, and foxes. Dogs and cats are legally required to be vaccinated in most states in the U.S. Though vaccine policies vary from state to state.

Why should you be concerned about rabies? Rabies can occur at almost any age and in any mammal species. Taking in stray cats or dogs or other species and keeping them as a pet increases your risk of exposure to this deadly disease. Furthermore, rabies may take as little as a week or up to 6 months before an animal shows disease symptoms. If you choose to get a stray, ensure that you take the animal to a vet shortly after taking it into your home. Rabies vaccination can save lives, including your own.

Human-animal bond – is it worth it?

Is having a pet in your life and experiencing the human-animal bond worth it? In a word, yes. Pets provide a source of pleasure, love, and amusement. They make you smile, laugh, cry, and have health benefits, including improved heart function, lowering blood pressure, emotional support, and more. Though saying goodbye to loved ones is the worst part about loving them, for most people owning a pet is well worth any health risks.

Before you get a pet – thoroughly research

Before you get a pet, do your due diligence. Research the pet you are interested in, not just the breed, weight, or size. You want to know what diet they need as each species is different. You want to know their lifespan, nutritional needs, exercise requirements, and other key factors to living a healthy life.

Rabbits and guinea pigs, for example, need fresh fruit and veggies, not pellets (despite what pet stores say), and free choice hay. That can be costly as well as take time to prepare.

Reptiles vary with each species. Some reptiles need to eat live prey, while others only consume frozen. Still, other reptiles eat just fruits and veggies. Most species need supplementation with calcium and heat lamps; their enclosures must be large and may be involved.

Still, other species require walking and regular exercise, some breed more than others. If you have trouble getting around, do not have a fenced-in yard, or cannot physically handle a large dog, maybe something smaller is right for you.

Know how long pets live. Most people don’t even think about how long some turtle species can live, we are talking over 50 years, and some birds also can live that or longer. Additionally, many people don’t factor in the costs of having a pet. These include medical expenses, food costs, enrichment (toys, treats), training, crates, cages, hutches, and time.

Being well-informed and asking the right questions, contacting a vet if you aren’t sure, can help you make the most of your pet experience. Select a pet that is right for you financially, physically, and mentally and one that will enrich your life. Make educated decisions and know and understand ways to protect yourself from harm while also enjoying the happiness pets can bring into your life.

Healthy pets, healthy family

While 70 or more diseases can be uncommonly transmitted from pets to people, and there may be others, most pet owners remain safe and healthy. Practicing proper hygiene and for those especially at higher risk, consider:

  • Avoiding sleeping in bed with pets.
  • Don’t allow face licking.
  • Pregnant women should avoid cleaning the litter box (especially if they test negative for toxoplasmosis).
  • Use caution when picking up your pet’s poop, cleaning the cat litter box, or scooping out your rabbit’s hutch – wear gloves or wash hands carefully after touching.
  • Don’t eat or drink without washing your hands properly.
  • Wash hands after touching your pets, especially reptiles and others at risk for Salmonella.
  • Always ensure your pet is properly cared for, healthy, and, if sick, taken to the veterinarian for care. Keeping fluffy or fido healthy keeps your family healthy.

Simply ensuring that those at higher risk for pet-associated illnesses learn of the risks and take steps to prevent them can help minimize health concerns and allow family members, even those more susceptible to infection, to reap the benefits of pet ownership and experience the amazing wonders of the human-animal bond.