Infections That Pets Carry
Caring for pets is a great learning experience for kids, teaching them responsibility, gentleness, and respect for other living beings. Like adults, kids can benefit from the companionship, affection, and relationships they share with their pets.
But animals and pets can transmit infections to humans, especially kids. So if you're thinking about buying a pet, or already have one, it's important to know how to protect your family from infections.
How Pets Spread Infections
Like people, all animals carry germs. Illnesses common among housepets — such as distemper, canine parvovirus, and heartworms — can't be transmitted to humans.
But pets also carry certain bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi that can cause illness if transmitted to humans. Humans get these animal-borne diseases when they're bitten or scratched or have contact with an animal's waste, saliva, or dander.
These diseases can affect humans in many ways. They're of greatest concern to young children, infants, pregnant women, and people whose immune systems have been compromised by illness or disease. Infants and kids younger than 5 years old are at risk because their immune systems are still developing, and some infections that might make an adult just mildly sick can be more serious for them.
Healthy Family, Healthy Pets
But you don't have to give up your family's furry friends either. Pets can enrich your family life, and taking a few precautions can protect your kids from getting sick.
Protecting your family from pet-related infections begins before bringing a pet home. For instance, reptiles and amphibians should not be allowed as pets in any household with infants and young children.
Also consider the health and age of your kids before getting a pet. A pet that would require frequent handling is not recommended for any immunocompromised child (such as a child who has HIV, has cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy, or uses prednisone frequently). Kids with eczema should probably avoid aquariums.
Dogs and Cats
Dogs and cats are popular pets but can carry infections such as:
- Campylobacter infection: can be transmitted by household pets carrying Campylobacter jejuni bacteria, which cause diarrhea, abdominal pain, and fever in people. The bacteria may be in the intestinal tract of infected dogs, cats, hamsters, birds, and certain farm animals. A person can become infected through contact with contaminated water, feces, undercooked meat, or unpasteurized milk.
More than 2 million cases of campylobacter infection occur each year in the United States, and C. jejuni is now the leading cause of bacterial gastroenteritis. Campylobacter infections are contagious, especially among members of the same family and kids in childcare or preschools. Infection is treated with antibiotics.
- Cat scratch disease: can occur when a person is bitten or scratched by a cat infected with Bartonella henselae bacteria. Symptoms include swollen and tender lymph nodes, fever, headaches, and fatigue, which usually resolve without treatment. However, a doctor may prescribe antibiotics if the infection is severe. Cat scratch disease rarely causes long-term complications.
- Rabies: a serious illness caused by a virus that enters the body through a bite or wound contaminated by the saliva from an infected animal. Animals that may carry the rabies virus include dogs, cats, raccoons, bats, skunks, and foxes. Widespread immunization of dogs and cats has decreased the transmission of rabies in these animals and in people. Human rabies is rare in the United States, and a vaccine is available for treatment following a bite from a potentially rabid animal.
- Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF): is transmitted by ticks infected by the Rickettsia ricketsii bacteria. Symptoms of RMSF include high fever, chills, muscle aches, and headaches, as well as a rash that may spread across the wrists, ankles, palms, soles, and trunk of the body. RMSF, which can be treated with antibiotics, is most common in the south central and the mid-south Atlantic regions of the United States.
- Ringworm: also called tinea; a skin infection caused by several types of fungi found in the soil and on the skin of humans and pets. Kids can get ringworm from touching infected animals such as dogs and cats. Ringworm of the skin, or tinea corporis, usually is a dry, scaly round area with a raised red bumpy border and a clear center. When the scalp is affected, the area may be flaky, red, or swollen. Often there are bald patches. Ringworm is treated with antifungal medications including shampoo, cream, or oral medicine.
- Toxocariasis: an illness caused by the parasitic roundworm Toxocara, which lives in the intestines of dogs and cats. The eggs from the worms are passed in the stools of dogs and cats, often contaminating soil where kids play. When a child ingests the contaminated soil, the eggs hatch in the intestine and the larvae spread to other organs, an infection known as visceral larva migrans. Symptoms include fever, cough or wheezing, enlarged liver, rash, or swollen lymph nodes. Symptoms may resolve on their own or a doctor may prescribe drugs to kill the larvae. When the larvae in the intestine make their way through the bloodstream to the eye, it is known as ocular toxocariasis, or ocular larva migrans, which may lead to a permanent loss of vision.
- Toxoplasmosis: contracted after contact with a parasite found in cat feces. In most healthy people, toxoplasmosis infection produces no symptoms. When symptoms do occur they may include swollen glands, fatigue, muscle pain, fever, sore throat, and a rash. In pregnant women, toxoplasmosis can cause miscarriage, premature births, and severe illness and blindness in newborns. Pregnant women should avoid contact with litter boxes. People whose immune systems have been weakened by illnesses such as HIV or cancer are at risk for severe complications from toxoplasmosis infection.
- Dog and cat bites: may become infected and cause serious problems, particularly bites to the face and hands. Cat bites tend to be worse, partly because they are deeper puncture wounds. Significant bites should be washed out thoroughly. Often these bite wounds require treatment in a doctor's office or emergency room; antibiotics are sometimes necessary.
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
© 1995-2009 The Nemours Foundation. All rights reserved.
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