Want a Pet? The Risk and Benefit

Who doesn’t love the pet who lavishes unconditional affection through thick and thin? President Harry Truman, while coping with the lonely responsibilities of his job, remarked, “If you want a friend in Washington, buy a dog!” But there are risks and responsibilities in pet ownership. It’s a matter worth considering since about 57 percent of North Americans own a pet.

          In the Canadian Medical Association Journal, Dr. Paul Cherniack and Angela Cherniack discuss some of the infectious risks in owning pets. Yet it’s amazing that, in spite of these risks, studies indicate doctors rarely ask patients about pet ownership of dogs, cats, rabbits, birds, reptiles and rodents.

          So what are the main infections to consider? Cats are most likely to infect humans with bacterial disease called Bartonella, usually triggered by a scratch from claws infected with feces of fleas, or a flea bite. This causes the swelling of lymph nodes. In severe cases, this can result in inflammation of the heart, and nerves and cause lesions on the liver, spleen and skin.

              The purchase of a kitten or puppy can pass along a problem called Campylobacter jejuni. This infectious organism is present in feces and causes diarrhea, vomiting and fever.

          I’ve previously reported that hospitalized patients face the risk of developing Clostridium difficle. Cherniack claims that dogs who visit health care centers may also become infected with this germ and pass it along to their owners. This disease is notorious for prolonged episodes of diarrhea with some patients having as many as forty bowel movements daily.

          A risk of Salmonella infection comes from reptiles amphibians, exotic animals, poultry and rodents. It infects the intestinal tract, causing fever and cramps.

          One of the more dramatic and distressing diseases, the large Roundworm, is never forgotten when it’s spotted in the toilet bowl. This happens when ova in dog or cat feces is ingested.

          The best way to avoid these infections is to remember the importance of   sound personal hygiene. This means you don’t run your hand down Fido’s tail, then pour yourself a scotch and soda and put ice cubes in your drink without first washing your hands.

          Remember, when Fido licks your face he shows he loves you. But Fido will always be a dog and may have pooped just before you rub his tail. It’s great to be loved, but you may also end with an unintended infection. Also remember, beds are designed for humans to sleep in, not pets.

          One of my patients could not understand why she was getting repeated fungus infections. Neither could I. That is, until one day, after a long talk, she   admitted having taught Fido to urinate in her bathtub while she was at work. An examination revealed that Fido had a fungus infection.

And if you own a turtle, don’t clean the turtle’s tank in the bathtub. The result may be salmonella infection.

          Taking animals to the veterinarian will help to decrease the risk of infection, but the first precaution is always personal protection to prevent unintended consequences.

          The good news is that Truman was dead-on about dogs and Washington. You rarely have someone love you more than your pet, and handled properly, he or she is one of your best doctors. So in the end, the benefits outweigh the risks.

          For instance, it’s been shown there are cardiovascular health benefits from pet ownership. A large California study showed that pet owners walked twenty minutes more each week than those without a pet.

          But should you own a dog or a cat? I’m sure one finding will ruffle a few feathers.  It showed that dog owners had a greater survival rate than those without dogs. And there was no such benefit for cat owners.

          Dr Cherniack reports that dog ownership may not be appropriate for all patients suffering from mental illness. But animal-assisted therapy may help resolve some mental illness.

          There’s little controversy that pets are helpful to children with autism, developmental disorders and to those who have been abused.

          One final risk, however. Be careful when walking a dog.  I’ve had several patients over the years who have tripped over a leash and ended up with broken bones.   

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