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9 tips to stop pets from spreading infections to humans

04/20/2015 12:00 EDT | Updated 07/10/2015 09:59 EDT
Pets can be a source of disease-causing bacteria, especially to young children, pregnant women, seniors and those with weak immune systems, but there are ways to reduce the risk.

While pet ownership has health, emotional and social benefits, the animals can also transmit infections to people, posing an underappreciated risk, according to medical and veterinary researchers. 

In Monday's Canadian Medical Association Journal, two veterinarians and a physician describe types of common infections, how pets transmit them, prevention and the role of health-care providers.

Dogs, cats, rodents, reptiles and amphibians can transmit salmonella, multidrug-resistant bacteria (including Clostridium difficile), Campylobacter jejuni and other diseases. Parasites such as hookworm, roundworm and Toxoplasma are also on the list of risks.

Dr. Jason Stull, an assistant professor in the department of veterinary preventive medicine at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, and his co-authors' suggestions for prevention include:

- Wear protective gloves to clean aquariums and cages and to remove feces.

- Wash hands after contact with pets.

- Discourage pets from face licking.

- Cover playground sandboxes when not in use.

- Avoid contact with exotic animals.

- Clean and disinfect animal cages, feeding areas and bedding regularly. For example, change cat litter boxes daily and keep them away from areas where food is prepared and eaten. Similarly, don't dispose of aquarium water in sinks used to prepare food.

- Wait to acquire a new pet until a sick person's immune status has improved.

- Consider limiting contact with animals in medical settings, such as therapy and visitation animals.

- Schedule veterinary visits for all pets regularly, including to control and prevent parasites. 

The other suggestions offered more specifics on personal hygiene, types and ages of pets and pet health. For example, avoid contact with dogs and cats less than six months old, reptiles, amphibians, rodents and chicks or ducklings, especially in homes with very young children or high-risk patients, including those being treated for cancer. 

Stull pointed to research on salmonella infections, such as how 31 per cent of reptile-associated salmonellosis cases in one study occurred in children under five. Direct contact with those animals isn't needed to spread the infection.

The authors also suggested doctors ask about pet contact and counsel patients on safe pet ownership.

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