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Zoonotic Diseases: Are We Sharing More Than Love with Our Pets?

By Dr. Laci Schaible

Zoonotic Diseases

In the United States, greater than 60% of households have pets and the human-animal bond has evolved from what it was even a generation ago. If you’re like many Americans, you may consider your pets as family. The new strength of this human-animal bond has put us at greater risk for acquiring diseases from our pets, known as zoonotic diseases in the veterinary world. These zoonotic diseases can include viruses, bacteria, internal parasites, and a number of other pathogens. In particular, sleeping with your pet and swapping kisses with him have recently received much criticism in the media.

Sleeping with the enemy?

According to a recent survey of pet owners by the Centers for Disease Control, over half of all dog owners in America sleep with their dogs next to them. While zoonotic diseases have received much mainstream attention recently, is this real cause to kick your pets out of your bed?

There are a number of cases throughout history in which people were likely infected with various diseases by sharing sleeping quarters with their pets. The bubonic plague is one of these diseases. Am I actually concerned about my family catching the bubonic plague? No, but my pets are current on their routine preventative care and parasite-free.

If your pet is infested with ectoparasites (such as fleas or ticks) or hasn’t recently had a fecal exam, then you are putting yourself at risk. Many parasites are microscopic, such as Giardia, Cryptosporidium, and hookworms. Even roundworms, which are visible to the naked eye in adult form (and resemble cooked linguini pasta), aren’t typically seen in a pet’s stool or vomit until a pet is infested with a heavy load. Living in close quarters with our pets is yet another reason to stick with year-round flea, tick, and heartworm preventative medicine.

Smooches with Pooches

Being licked by pets is a common way for bacteria to be transmitted between pets and people. This can potentially cause dental disease or, rarely, even more serious disease. There are the isolated cases of cellulitis and meningitis being traced back to swapping saliva with our household pets, but they are often associated with levels of affection that aren't routinely recommended, such as pets using newborn's pacifiers as toys, dogs licking infant’s faces, or pets licking open wounds (without immediate sanitation methods taken).

In the US, hookworms and roundworms are the most common parasitic zoonoses associated with dogs, not the rare cases of meningitis transmitted from sloppy kisses. If you maintain your pooch on heartworm preventative medications year round, they will be protected against the most common parasites. The price of monthly heartworm prevention seems very inexpensive when you consider it is a way to help keep your human family protected from intestinal parasites your pup can carry and shed.

A case for close quarters with our pets

While there are some disease risks that rise when we share our home with pets, with proper hygiene and thorough preventative care, relishing in furry snuggles can have a wealth of benefits, including psychological support, friendship, and even better health. Here are a few of my favorites.

  • Pets are a natural mood elevator! In fact, playing with a dog can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine.
  • Infants are less likely to develop allergies if they share their home with a family dog. They also are less likely to develop eczema.
  • Having pets tends to lead to better heath for the elderly, particularly less anxious outbursts for those with Alzheimer's. At least one insurance company (Midland Life Insurance Company) even asks elderly applicants if they have a pet as part of their screening.
  • Sharing your life with a dog or cat has cardiovascular benefits as well. It appears to lower blood pressure and heart attack patients with pets survive longer than those without pets.

In Summary

While extra cautions should be taken with the young, elderly, or immune-compromised, the studies shows there is a low risk of zoonotic disease transmission from sharing your home with a healthy pet. Any area licked by a pet, especially for those at increased health risk or an open wound, should be immediately washed with soap and water. Pets should be kept free of all ectoparasites, routinely dewormed for protection against internal parasites, maintained on heartworm prevention medication year round, and regularly examined by a veterinarian. Even with proper care and protection of your pets, special attention must be exercised to avoid sources of zoonotic diseases from the outdoors, such as gardening with bare hands. Keeping your fuzzy kids healthy is crucial to keeping your human family healthy, especially in these times where the line separating family members gets, well, fuzzy.

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Pet health insurance is administered by Embrace Pet Insurance Agency, LLC and underwritten by one of the licensed insurers of American Modern Insurance Group, Inc., including American Modern Home Insurance Company d/b/a in CA as American Modern Insurance Company (Lic. No 2222-8), and American Southern Home Insurance Company. Coverage is subject to policy terms, conditions, limitations, exclusions, underwriting review, and approval, and may not be available for all risks or in all states. Rates and discounts vary, are determined by many factors, and are subject to change. Wellness Rewards is offered as a supplementary, non-insurance benefit administered by Embrace Pet Insurance Agency in the United States. © 2020 American Modern Insurance Group, Inc.  Wellness Rewards not available in Rhode Island.