Keeping Pets (and People) Healthy

Article excerpt

Pets occupy an esteemed place in many of our households, often being treated as members of the family. They offer a source of amusement, pleasure, and companionship. They provide opportunities for outdoor exercise and socialization. And, according to some studies, they can decrease our blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and triglyceride levels.

But along with the emotional rewards and health benefits of pet ownership also come health risks. Pets--and other animals--can give us diseases.

Animal diseases that can be transmitted to humans are known as zoonotic diseases, or zoonoses. Some people are more likely than others to get zoonoses: the elderly, pregnant women, infants and children less than 5 years old, people undergoing treatments for cancer, people who have received organ transplants, and people with suppressed immune systems, such as those with HIV/AIDS.

If you fit into one of these categories, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises avoiding contact with certain animals that are more likely than others to carry diseases: reptiles (turtles, lizards, and snakes), baby chicks, and ducklings.

The list of zoonoses is long and continues to grow as people travel to more remote parts of the world and bring diseases back with them, and as animals that carry diseases are imported. The first human outbreak of monkeypox, a rare smallpox-like disease, occurred in the United States in May 2003. The disease was believed to have been brought into the country in April by a shipment of rodents and other small mammals imported from Africa. These animals infected prairie dogs being sold as pets, which in turn infected humans in close contact with the prairie dogs.

In June 2003, in response to the monkeypox outbreak, the Food and Drug Administration and the CDC banned the import of all African rodents, and the transport, sale, and release into the environment of prairie dogs and six species of African rodents. In November 2003, both agencies issued a new rule that clarifies and extends the import and transport restrictions for these animals. This interim rule, which is open for public comment until Jan. 20, 2004, gives an increased measure of protection to help prevent future outbreaks of monkeypox in the United States.

Even if people never leave the country or acquire a pet from further away than their local animal shelter, they may still be vulnerable to getting certain diseases from pets. Fortunately, the risk of getting a disease from your pet is small, and you can minimize the risk by practicing good personal hygiene, keeping pet areas clean, controlling disease-carrying insects, and getting regular vaccinations and veterinary care for pets.

Parasites, bacteria, fungi, and viruses are the culprits responsible for spreading many diseases from pets to humans. Some are more common and troublesome for pets and pet owners than others.


Worms, such as roundworms and hookworms, can infect dogs, cats, and some other animals. Worms can also infect people if they ingest the organisms or, in the case of hookworms--which can penetrate the skin--if they walk barefoot on infected soil.

Worms live in the intestines of animals and are expelled in the stool. If left untreated in pets, homes and yards can become contaminated from worm eggs that are passed in animal feces and hatch in the soil. If your animal has worms, get it treated and clean up after it promptly, advises Linda Wilmot, D.V.M., a veterinary medical officer in the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM). "Don't give the eggs that are passed in the feces time to hatch."

More than 90 percent of puppies are born with worms, says Wilmot. Mother dogs can pass worms to their puppies before birth and both dogs and cats can pass it to their offspring through their milk after birth.

Touching the stool or contaminated soil and then touching the mouth or handling food are common routes of transmission of worms to humans. …