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Pet Talk: Pet diseases that make people sick

September 15, 2010

From College of Veterinary Medicine, Texas A&M University

Sixty-four percent of American households own pets. This percentage is a large indication of the importance that pets have on today’s society. People love their pets, and their companionship provides positive health benefits to their owners. However, there are times pets can cause harm to their owners because of the diseases they carry. It is important to be aware of some of the possible health problems that can be initiated by pets.

Roundworms can cause a disease that can be transmitted to humans by dogs and cats. Roundworms are parasites that can infect humans because their eggs live in the fecal contaminated soil and enter the body through accidental ingestion. Dogs and cats can carry adult worms in their intestinal tracts and shed the eggs in the animal’s feces. The damaging eggs can be transmitted to children after the eggs mature one to three weeks in the soil, and then infect soil ingesting children. Some symptoms include cough, shortness of breath, abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, blood in the stool, weight loss, fatigue, and presence of a worm in the victim’s vomit, stool or behind the eye.

“In extreme cases, young children can lose an eye,” explains Dr. Leon Russell, professor in the veterinary integrative biosciences department at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM). “Children pick up the eggs from dogs and cats and their feces. The roundworms hatch out and become larvae, and they then migrate around the body until they enter the brain and cause damage. To avoid this, dogs and cats should be on a de-worming treatment. It is also important to teach children personal hygiene at a young age so that they can avoid infection and contamination.”

Hookworms can also cause health problems to humans via dogs and cats because they can bring them into the house. Hookworm larvae penetrate the skin and they migrate to the lungs. They then go into the trachea, where they are swallowed and enter the digestive tract. The larvae finally enter the intestines, where they mature into adult worms and live off of the host’s blood. Coughing, chest pain and fever are sometimes experienced by infected people. Severe infections can lead to anemia and protein deficiency.

Toxoplasmosis, also known as “litter box disease,” is a rare disease that can be transmitted to humans by ingestion of the eggs one to two days after the eggs are passed in a cat’s stool. This parasite can also be acquired by eating undercooked meat, especially pork or mutton. General symptoms include enlarged lymph nodes in the head and neck, headache, mild illness with fever, muscle pain and a sore throat. The severity of this disease heightens when a pregnant woman is infected because it can lead to an enlarged liver and spleen, eye damage, hearing loss, jaundice and other health problems to the unborn child.

Generally, cat scratch disease is not as serious as other diseases, but it can still cause health problems. A cat infected with the bacteria Bartonella henselae can spread the disease to humans via a bite, scratch or contact with the cat’s saliva on broken skin or through the eye. Most cases improve without treatment. If symptoms persist, antibiotics may be prescribed to alleviate the conditions. Symptoms include a bump or a blister at the site of the injury, fatigue, fever, headache, swollen lymph nodes and overall discomfort.

Giardiasis is a less publicized disease, but it is important to note because 20,000 cases were reported last year alone. People can contract this disease by drinking water from infected rivers where animals have defecated, especially dogs with diarrhea. Symptoms include abdominal pain, diarrhea, gas or bloating, headache, loss of appetite, fever, nausea, swollen abdomen and vomiting. Sometimes medicine is used to cure the disease, but giardiasis usually goes away on its own.

“Giardiasis has been a real problem in day care centers,” said Russell. “One child will contract the disease, and they will easily spread it to the other children.”

Some animals and their habitats are sources of exposure to Salmonella. More than 2,500 types of Salmonella bacteria exist. Salmonella can become a serious problem, so it is important to be aware of the positive impact cleanliness has on your health. Symptoms range from nausea to blood in the stool.

Many animals are carriers of Salmonella, and pet turtles are very common carriers.

“Children with pet turtles need to be very careful when cleaning their aquariums,” notes Russell. “Children can easily pick up the bacteria if they don’t properly clean and sterilize the aquarium and its contents nor properly wash their hands afterward. Inadequate cleaning and sanitizing can also result in contamination of other nearby utensils that are exposed.”

As a lot of these symptoms are the same, people should consult their health care professional if they think they have contracted any of these or similar diseases.

“The best prevention for these diseases is to use common sense and to use good personal hygiene practices,” said Russell. “If you have pets, it is also important to talk with your local veterinarian and your physician so your pet and you can keep up with your vaccinations.”

Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University. Stories can be viewed on the Web at http://tamunews.tamu.edu. Suggestions for future topics may be directed to editor@cvm.tamu.edu.

From the Sept. 15-21, 2010 issue

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