For the last couple of years, my children have begged for a pet. They aren’t particularly choosy about the type of animal and have repeatedly said that they would happily take a fish, turtle, cat, dog, or even hermit crab. When we do finally cave in and get them their coveted companion, we will be in the company of millions of other American families. According to the Humane Society, approximately 65 percent of American homes have at least one pet, and 42 percent of homes have more than one.
It’s easy to see why so many Americans are “pet people.” Not only can animals be cute and cuddly (some of them, anyway), but living with a pet has known health benefits. People who have pets tend to have lower blood pressure, cholesterol levels, triglyceride levels, and reported feelings of loneliness. They also live longer on average than non-pet owners. Since dogs generally need to be walked outside, having one facilitates opportunities for both exercise and socialization, which are important components of a healthy lifestyle. And among children, there is evidence that being exposed to dogs or farm animals early in life reduces the risk of asthma and other allergic conditions like eczema (this is called the “hygiene hypothesis”).
Of course, pets also come with risks, especially for children, who are more vulnerable to injuries from animal bites and other mishaps. Understanding these risks and taking steps to avoid them can reduce the dangers associated with pets and help keep all the residents of your home, human and otherwise, healthy and happy.
1. Dog and cat bites
Each year an estimated 4.5 million Americans are bitten by dogs, with nearly one million of those bites requiring medical treatment. Children are the most common victims of dog bites and account for more than half of cases treated each year. Any dog, regardless of size or breed, can cause injury from a bite. Most dog bites involve familiar animals, so even if you think you know a dog well, it is important to teach children some basic precautions. Always ask the owner before petting a dog; let the dog see and sniff your hand before petting; never tease, yank, or pull a dog’s ears, tail, or other body parts; don’t try to take food away from a dog; and never back a dog into a corner.
If a dog does bite your child, apply firm pressure to the area with a clean towel until the bleeding stops and then wash the wound with soap and water and cover it. If the bite breaks the skin, contact your physician immediately (even if the bite seems minor) to determine whether your child needs antibiotics or treatment for possible rabies exposure.
You may not hear about them as much, but cat bites can also be dangerous. In fact, because these bites are typically puncture wounds made by long, thin teeth, they can more easily transmit a bacterium called Pasteurella multocida. Within less than 24 hours of the bite, this organism can causea serious skin condition called cellulitis, which may appear as warm, reddened, tender skin, occasionally with pus coming from the wound.Some children may develop fever, swollen lymph nodes, and even infections of the joints. In rare cases, the infection can lead to meningitis, pneumonia, urinary tract infections, or blood infections. As with dog bites, if a child (or anyone) is bitten by a cat and it penetrates the skin, get medical attention right away.
2. Cat scratch fever
Cat scratch disease (CSD), also known as cat scratch fever, is an infection caused by the bacterium Bartonella henselae, which is spread by cats who become infected from flea bites or droppings. (This is one more reason to make flea prevention a priority.) Humans can get infected if a cat bites or scratches them hard enough to break the skin, or if the person has an open wound and a cat licks it. The affected area may become red, raised, and painful and may feel warm to the touch or produce pus. The infected person may also develop fever, lack of appetite, headache, and exhaustion. In some cases, CSD requires antibiotic treatment. In rare cases, CSD can cause serious complications requiring intensive treatment, including hospitalization; this most commonly occurs among children under age 5, older adults, and people with weakened immunity.
Although most cat scratches do not result in CSD, about 40 percent of cats carry the infection at any given time, usually without showing any signs of disease. It is more commonly transmitted by young cats (possibly because they’re typically more playful and prone to nip or scratch). If you or your child are scratched or bitten by a cat, immediately wash the area well with soap and water. If your child develops a fever or large and tender lymph nodes within one to three weeks after being scratched, contact your healthcare provider. Treatment for the cat is not recommended unless he or she shows symptoms of disease.
3. Dry pet food
You may think it’s harmless and funny if your curious toddler borrows a snack from Rover’s kibble dish. But it’s not a good idea: Pet food can sometimes make humans sick. In 2012, the CDC linked an outbreak of infection involving 49 people in 47 states to Salmonella bacteria in dry dog food manufactured at a production facility in South Carolina. Salmonellainfection causes diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps. In very serious cases it may require hospitalization or even be fatal. In addition to contracting salmonella infection from contaminated pet food itself, you can also get it from contact with the feces of any pets who ate it. Aside from not letting kids eat pet food, the CDC advises washing your and their hands after feeding or handling your pet and after touching or cleaning up animal feces. Store animal feces in a sealed bag until you can discard it.
4. Reptiles and amphibians
Turtles, snakes, frogs, or lizards can be a fun alternative to furry pets, but even healthy ones can carry Salmonella. According to the CDC, 37 people became ill between March and August 2017 as a result of several ongoing outbreaks of salmonella infections linked to small turtles. Just under half of those who became ill were children under the age of 5; some of them never even had direct contact with the pet. A similar outbreak in the U.S. in 2011, linked to African dwarf frogs, sickened 241 people, most of them under age 10.
Salmonella is spread through contaminated feces, and because the bacterium can contaminate objects, a person can be infected even without directly handling the animal. The CDC recommends washing your hands after any contact with reptiles and amphibians, and keeping these animals out of the kitchen or other areas where they could come into contact with food. Children under age 5, adults over age 65, and people with weakened immunity should avoid touching amphibians, reptiles, or their environments because they have a greater risk of contracting serious illness. And despite what the fairy tales say, don't kiss amphibians or reptiles.
5. Worms and ringworm
Both cats and dogs can carry worms that transmit diseases to humans. Among the more common organisms in cats and dogs are certain parasitic hookworms, which can cause an infection in humans called cutaneous larva migrans. This infection occurs when hookworm larvae enter the skin and cause an itchy red irritation that becomes raised red tracks where the larvae move.
Puppies and kittens commonly carry hookworms, whose eggs are then passed in their stool. The eggs and larvae in turn take up residence in the area where the animal went to the bathroom (particularly if it’s dirt or sand) or tracked its feces. Infection in humans can happen when we come into contact with the dirt, such as when walking barefoot. To prevent hookworm infection, keep your shoes on when outside and make sure children don’t run around barefoot anywhere there could be animal feces. Getting routine veterinary care for your dog or cat is also important, since this will include de-worming treatments.
Another rash-causing infection, ringworm, is most commonly transmitted by puppies or kittens. Kids may think there's a worm under their skin because of the name, but it's actually a fungus that causes the itchy, ring-like red rash on the skin. Humans can get infected by touching an infected animal’s skin or hair or items contaminated with the fungus, such as blankets or towels. Milder cases of ringworm can often be treated by keeping the affected skin clean and dry and washing your bedding daily until symptoms have resolved. More severe infections require treatment with antifungal medication. You can help prevent ringworm by washing your hands after playing with your pet, as well as calling your vet if you notice symptoms of ringworm infection in your pet (puppies and kitties will often display bald, scaly rings on their skin), so that he or she can get proper treatment.
Also see Can Your Dog or Cat Make You Sick?