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Association of Human Disease With Pet Contact

Agatha M. Thrash, M.D.
Preventive Medicine

Pets represent an important part of the life of many Americans, but many others have found that they can live perfectly happily without them. Both children and adults may have as much affection for a pet as for a family member, although genuine love indicates also features of duty, responsibility, and dependence not experienced with pets. When pets are eliminated, it is easy to replace their presence with a number of activities such as cultivation of plants, and creative activities such as writing, art, music, etc.

To eliminate pets from the household seems to be an especially difficult measure, and many parents or patients do not comply with the instructions of their physicians to get rid of pets. The number of diseases associated with pets is quite formidable, and growing with each decade. There are certain activities that are especially associated with danger. Children playing in soil where animals also play can be hazardous. Creeping eruptions on the skin from a parasite transmitted from the pet; chorioretinitis necessitating loss of an eye, and larva migrans in the internal organs from parasites that travel from skin to key organs are some of the common problems seen.

Toxoplasma is probably one of the most common diseases transmitted from pets to humans. About 50% of the U.S. population shows evidence in their blood of having had toxoplasmosis. The disease can be very mild, with the symptoms of infectious mononucleosis or even lymphoma, but in the acute forms, the disease can be severe and is often fatal. If a baby is infected through his mother before birth the disease can result in mental retardation, blindness, or death. The disease is transmitted chiefly by cat feces and undercooked meat of infected animals.

To prevent toxoplasmosis meat should be heated to at least 150° F (66° C) throughout all portions before eating. Wash hands with soap and water after handling meat. Never feed raw meat to cats; feed only dry or canned foods or cooked meats. Keep cats indoors constantly, or outdoors constantly; don't allow them to prey on rodents. Change litter boxes daily. Flush cat feces down the toilet or burn it. Use gloves while working in the garden. Cats frequently defecate in loose soil found in gardens. Cover children's sandboxes when not in use so that cats cannot use them as a litter box. Women should be advised to be especially careful during pregnancy as an infection acquired during pregnancy can have devastating results on the unborn child.

Salmonellosis, a disease of the digestive tract, can be transmitted to children from a pet such as a cuddly chick or duckling at Easter time, pet turtles and frogs, snails in aquariums, and from any other pet. Antibiotics are contraindicated for salmonellosis and may prolong the carrier state.(1)

Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever is now found throughout the U.S., and is characterized by a measles-like rash. It is a tick transmitted disease. Wild animals are most often involved as the reservoir for the disease, but domesticated animals may sometimes harbor the ticks.

Rabies can be transmitted from rabid dogs or wild animals.

Cat scratch disease can cause swelling of the lymph nodes upstream from a cat scratch, and rose thorn scratches are just as effective in transmitting the disease if cats play around the roses. Fever and feeling bad can be part of the syndrome.

Canine heart worms can infest humans, and show lesions on chest x-rays that mimic cancer, necessitating unnecessary surgery and expensive diagnostic procedures to say nothing of the physical disability involved.

Tularemia or rabbit fever can be spread by rabbits, ticks, or deer flies, and is highly contagious. It can be obtained by contact with an infected animal, eating the animal, or from air droplets. It is characterized by high fever, pneumonia, or gastrointestinal disease, swelling of lymph nodes, an ulcer at the point of infection, and can be fatal.

Sick dogs can transmit North American blastomycosis which may present as skin lesions or pneumonia that fails to respond to antibiotics.

One might think birds would be safe pets, but a little investigation reveals them to be subject to the same disease as other pets. Psittacosis is transmitted from parakeets and other birds, and leads to headaches, chills, fever, cough, and pneumonia. The disease can be contracted by breathing the air near the bird cage.

Of course, there is more and more evidence that pets are associated with serious, disabling, and life-threatening diseases such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, leukemia-lymphoma groups, and many other diseases.

If one cannot entirely eliminate pets from the environment he should attempt to control transmission of the disease by keeping pets out-of-doors in their own quarters, far away from the areas where children play and where people are likely to breathe dust that may be blown up from the animals' quarters.

Cat pneumonia can cause cases of primary atypical pneumonia in man.(2)

The costs of capturing and destroying unwanted, free-roaming dogs and administering associated laws, costs an estimated 450 million dollars annually.(3)

More children with brain tumors as well as children with other malignancies have been exposed to farm animals and to sick pets than children who have no malignancies.(4)

All kinds of animals, from pet hamsters and turtles to elephants can transmit diseases to humans. The diseases range from skin lesions and sore throats to life threatening illnesses of the brain and central nervous system.

In any family where anyone has any kind of allergy, the burden of proof is on the family to exclude the animal as the source of the allergy. About one-third of allergists uniformly recommend that pets be eliminated from the allergic household.(5)

The allergic person may be sensitive not only to the dander of the dog, but to saliva, urine, and blood.(6)

References:

1. Patient Care, March 30, 1981, p. 23.

2. Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine 15(2):139, December 1942.

3. Medical World News, October 11, 1974, p. 96.

4. American Journal of Epidemiology 109:309-319, March 1979.

5. Medical Tribune, May 23, 1979.

6. Patient Care, March 30, 1981, p. 18.

For more information, contact:

Uchee Pines Lifestyle Center
30 Uchee Pines Road #75
Seale, Alabama 36875

Tel. 334-855-4764

www.ucheepines.org