Caring for pets offers a tremendous learning experience for
kids, teaching them responsibility, gentleness, and respect for
nature and other living beings. Like adults, kids can benefit from
the companionship, affection, and relationships they share with
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
. Illnesses common among housepets - such as distemper, canine
parvovirus, and heartworms - can't be transmitted to
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
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
and is undergoing chemotherapy, or uses prednisone frequently).
should probably avoid aquariums.
Common Infections That Pets Carry
Dogs and Cats
Dogs and cats are popular pets but can carry infections such
can be transmitted by household pets carrying
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
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
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
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
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
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
an illness caused by the parasitic roundworm
, 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 larva migrans
, which may lead to a permanent loss of vision.
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.
Pet birds, even if they are kept in a cage, may transmit the
a fungal disease contracted when someone inhales organisms found
in bird droppings, especially from pigeons, that can cause
pneumonia. People with weakened immune systems from illnesses
such as HIV or cancer are at increased risk of contracting this
disease and developing serious complications such as
also known as parrot fever, a bacterial illness that can occur
from contact with infected bird feces or with the dust that
accumulates in birdcages. Symptoms include coughing, high fever,
and headache. It is treated with antibiotics.
Reptiles and Amphibians
Reptiles (including lizards, snakes, and turtles) and amphibians
(including frogs, toads, and salamanders) place kids at risk
Reptiles and amphibians shed
in their feces. Touching the reptile's skin, cage, and other
contaminated surfaces can lead to infection in people.
causes symptoms such as abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting, and
fever. Young children are at risk for more serious illness,
including dehydration, meningitis, and sepsis (blood
Handling and caring for rodents - including hamsters and gerbils
- as well as fish may place kids at risk for:
Lymphocytic choriomeningitis (LCM):
People can contract lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus by
inhaling particles that come from urine, feces, or saliva from
infected rodents, such as mice and hamsters. LCM can cause
flu-like symptoms - fever, fatigue, headaches, muscle aches,
nausea, and vomiting - and may even lead to meningitis (an
inflammation of the membrane that surrounds the brain and spinal
cord) and encephalitis (an inflammation of the brain). As with
most viruses, there is no specific treatment, but some patients
may require hospitalization. Like toxoplasmosis, LCM may be
passed from infected mother to fetus.
This infection may occur in people exposed to contaminated water
in aquariums or pools. Although mycobacteria marinum infections
are generally mild and limited to the skin, they can be more
severe in people with HIV or with weakened immune systems.
Precautions When Adopting or Buying a Pet
If you're adopting or purchasing a pet, make sure the
breeder, shelter, or store is reputable and vaccinates all of its
animals. A reputable breeder should belong to a national or local
breeding club, such as the American Kennel Club. Contact the Humane
Society of the United States or your veterinarian for information
about animal shelters in your area.
As soon as you choose a family pet, take it to a local
veterinarian for vaccinations and a physical examination. Don't
forget to routinely vaccinate your pet on a schedule recommended by
your vet - this will keep your pet healthy and reduce the risk that
infections will be transmitted to your kids.
You'll also want to regularly feed your pet nutritious
animal food (ask your vet for suggestions) and provide plenty of
fresh water. Avoid feeding your pet raw meat because this can be a
source of infection, and do not allow your pet to drink toilet
water because infections can be spread through saliva, urine, and
feces. Limit young kids' contact with outdoor pets that hunt
and kill for food because a pet that ingests infected meat may
contract an infection that can be passed to people.
Safely Caring for Your Pet
Here are some tips to help your family safely care for
- Always wash your hands, especially after touching your pet,
handling your pet's food, or cleaning your pet's cage,
tank, or litter box. Wear gloves when cleaning up after an
animal's waste, and if you have a bird, wear a dust mask over
your nose and mouth to prevent inhaling urine or fecal particles.
Don't have kids clean cages or litter boxes unless there is
supervision or until they have demonstrated they can do this
safely and responsibly (and again, hands should be washed
- Avoid kissing or touching your pet with your mouth because
infections can be transmitted by saliva. Also, avoid sharing food
with your pet.
- Keep your pet's living area clean and free of waste. If
your pet eliminates waste outdoors, pick up waste regularly and
don't allow kids to play in that area.
- Don't allow pets in areas where food is prepared or
handled, and don't bathe your pet or clean aquariums in the
kitchen sink or bathtub. Wash your pet outdoors or talk to your
veterinarian about professional pet grooming.
- Avoid strange animals or those that appear sick. Never adopt
a wild animal as a pet.
Watch kids carefully around pets. Small children are more likely
to catch infections from pets because they crawl around on the
floor with the animals, kiss them or share food with them, or put
their fingers in the pets' mouths and then put their dirty
fingers in their own mouths. Also, if kids visit a petting zoo,
farm, or a friend's house where there are animals, make sure
they know the importance of hand washing.
For your pet's comfort and for your family's safety,
control flea and tick problems in your pet. Fleas and ticks can
carry diseases that may be easily passed to kids. Oral and topical
medications are available for flea and tick control; avoid using
flea collars because kids can handle them and become sick from the
chemicals they contain. Check your pet regularly for fleas and
ticks, as well as bites and scratches that may make them more
susceptible to infection. Keep your pet leashed when outdoors and
keep it away from animals that look sick or may be
And, finally, spay or neuter your pet. Spaying and neutering may
reduce your pet's contact with other animals that may be
infected, especially if your pet goes outdoors.
Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: November 2008
Originally reviewed by:
Stephen C. Eppes, MD
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice,
diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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