Every pet lover knows that their dog or cat helps them stay healthier; the impact of an animal's companionship and loyalty can't be understated. Considering how many of us interact closely with animals on a daily basis, the overall risk of contracting a disease from them is remarkably low. We can't catch a cold from our cat, and our dog won't pass along pink eye. However, certain illnesses can be spread from pet to owner. Those among us who are immunocompromised, such as infants, the elderly, HIV positive, or cancer patients are particular susceptible.Which diseases CAN we get from our beloved companions?The most common pet-related condition I see in my practice is the allergic reaction. The trigger is actually a cat or dog's dander. Think dandruff: Dander is tiny scales from the skin under the fur. Once it becomes airborne and is inhaled, itchy, watery eyes, sneezing, other sinus problems, and even asthma can result. Diseases transmitted by fleas, while not coming directly from our pet, are a result of having pets in our household. Fleas feed on human blood as well as on the blood of our pets, and many of us are quite sensitive to their bites. Most commonly seen is simple swelling and itching at the site of a bite. Rarely, however, fleas transmit other diseases; including cat scratch fever, tapeworms, and even more rarely typhus and plague. (Let's not be concerned about typhus and plague!) Regular flea control is not difficult. Lyme disease is bacterial and is spread by ticks. An infected tick can hitch a ride on a dog or horse, and then jump to a human. After several days or weeks, the bacteria carried by the tick can spread throughout the human body. Symptoms include rashes, pain that seems to move from joint to joint, and signs of inflammation of the heart or nerves. If the disease is not treated, a few victims may get additional symptoms months after becoming infected, including swelling and pain in major joints, and changes in mental status. Among the fungal diseases, ringworm is probably the most common animal-to-human fungal infection. It is more commonly spread from cats to humans, but dogs can spread it as well. In humans it causes a small, red itchy rash, which spreads outward. Once identified, it is easily treated with a cream. Poison ivy doesn't seem to bother our pets, but when they pass through a patch and come home to be petted, they expose our human skin to the oil of the plant that causes the rash. The bacteria that cause Cat Scratch Fever are mostly carried by kittens, and about 40% of cats carry it at some point in their lives. The infection that results is generally found in children, a week or two following a cat scratch or bite, or a fleabite. It causes swollen lymph nodes around the head, neck, and upper limbs, and symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue, and loss of appetite. Fortunately, most healthy people recover on their own, and it can be treated with antibiotics. Parasites that can infect our dogs and cats include roundworm, hookworm, whipworm, and tapeworm, and these parasites can be transmitted to humans. The usual mode of transmission through contact with their feces. A veterinarian can check for most worms in a stool sample, and a number of medications, some of which are over-the-counter, are available to rid your pets of these parasites. Toxoplasmosis is one of the diseases caused by a parasite, and most often is passed to people from contaminated cat feces. This can occur by simply cleaning your cat's litter box or touching dirt where your cat may have been. (It is also seen in humans after eating undercooked meat.) Usually toxoplasmosis does not cause symptoms, but can sometimes cause flu-like symptoms such as swollen glands and muscle aches. This disease is particularly an issue for women who are pregnant, because it can infect the fetus and cause birth defects or miscarriage. To reduce the risk of Toxoplasmosis, wash hands thoroughly after contact with cat feces, and if you are or may be pregnant, avoid the cat litter box completely. Salmonellosis (caused by Salmonella bacteria) is usually caused by eating contaminated food, such as chicken or eggs. However, dogs, cats, birds, horses, and farm animals can transmit it to humans.Symptoms are usually gastrointestinal, including nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and bloody diarrhea with mucous; as well as headache with fatigue. These symptoms can be severe, especially in young children and the elderly. Symptoms may last up to a week, and usually appear 12 to 72 hours after exposure. For you bird lovers, Psittacosis is a bacterial disease transmitted by birds such as parrots, parakeets, macaws, cockatiels, turkeys and ducks. When a bird is infected, it will develop eye discharge or swelling, labored breathing, shivering, weight loss, lethargy, a "fluffed up" appearance, diarrhea, or weakness. Humans can inhale droppings from an infected bird, and symptoms appear after a 5-14 day incubation period. They range from no symptoms at all to a severe pneumonia with high fevers, joint pain, diarrhea, conjunctivitis, and rose spots. Psittacosis can be diagnosed from blood tests, and is treated with common antibiotics. A discussion about diseases acquired from animals is not complete without mentioning the dreaded rabies. This infection is caused by a virus found in the saliva of infected animals and is transmitted to pets and humans by a bite. Infected bats, raccoons, foxes, skunks, dogs or cats provide the greatest risk. Note that in my own 24 years of practice, I have not seen a single case in our local community! What can you do to protect yourself from pet-related infections? *When you adopt a new pet, make sure it is healthy. Take it to the veterinarian to be examined, dewormed, and stay current on all necessary vaccines. *Avoid being licked, especially on the face and hands. *Wear gloves when gardening. *If your pet defecates in your yard, clean up the feces frequently. *If your pet shows signs of illness, take it to the veterinarian. *Keep your pet free of fleas. You will both be happier. *Most importantly, wash your hands after handling your pet or its feces. Consider wearing a mask and disposable gloves when cleaning out a birdcage, scooping out a litter box, or cleaning up feces outdoors. Don't be fearful of owning a pet; all of these diseases are rare. Be aware, use good hygiene, and enjoy your loyal companion! Dr. Alan Frischer is former chief of staff and former chief of medicine at Downey Regional Medical Center. Write to him in care of this newspaper at 8301 E. Florence Ave., Suite 100, Downey, CA 90240.
********** Published: March 08, 2012 - Volume 10 - Issue 47