An outbreak of salmonella has sickened 20 people and is linked to pet geckos
Pet reptiles often harbor salmonella, though people can reduce their risk of infection by washing their hands after handling these pets
Dogs, cats and other popular pets can carry bacteria and parasites that cause human disease
Pets give us companionship and affection, but they can also give us diseases. Although it is rare to get sick from our furry and feathered friends, some outbreaks seem to crop up perennially.
Since January of last year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported at least 20 people across the United States came down with salmonella infections linked to contact with crested geckos bought at pet stores. Three people were hospitalized.
This outbreak is the most recent in a string of salmonella infections associated with pet reptiles. In 2012, people reportedly got salmonella from pet bearded dragons; in 2013, 26 people were infected with the bacterium from their companion hedgehog.
Just about every type of pet can spread disease, not just reptiles and rare pets. Some infections are household names, such as worms, whereas others, like “parrot fever,” are more exotic. The small risks are usually outweighed by the health benefits of living with a pet.
“There are so many positive qualities of spending time with animals but you need to minimize the risk,” said Dr. Peter Rabinowitz, associate professor of environmental and occupational health sciences and global health at the University of Washington. Keeping your pet healthy, by proper hygiene and following your vet’s recommendations, can help keep your family healthy, he said.
What is it about reptiles and salmonella? “[The bacteria] like to live on them,” Rabinowitz said. “Many of them just have salmonella on them all the time, and they don’t get sick from it,” he added. But people can. About 70,000 people get salmonella infections, typically including fever and diarrhea, from reptiles every year in the United States. Most recover within four to seven days, although some infections require hospitalization.
In 1975, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the sale of small turtles with shells less than 4 inches long. As a 2014 FDA report explained, children like to put small turtles in their mouths. “Young children find very creative ways to infect themselves,” said Vic L. Boddie II, Ph.D., a consumer safety officer in the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine.
The CDC recommends that children under age 5 and people with weak immune systems don’t have reptiles as pets. It also recommends a number of steps to reduce the risk of getting salmonella, including washing hands after handling reptiles and keeping them out of areas where food is prepared. “You can go a long way with hand washing with soap and water,” Rabinowitz said.
“We’ve lived with dogs and cats, especially dogs, for a long time, so we are sort of adapted to illnesses we could get from them,” Rabinowitz said. Nevertheless they do sometimes make their owners sick.
Roundworm is one of the most common diseases that we get from dogs. People can pick up the parasite by accidentally swallowing dirt that contains dog waste. Children playing in backyards are especially likely to be infected.
Although most of the time infections do not cause symptoms, they sometimes turn serious. Every year there are about 10,000 cases of roundworm spreading through the body and causing fever and fatigue, and about 700 cases of roundworm spreading to the eyes, where it can cause blindness.
The most important thing people can do is follow their veterinarian’s deworming schedule, said Douglas Aspros, former president of the American Veterinary Medical Association. “Every dog is born with roundworm, even if their mother was dewormed,” he said. The parasite can also cause problems for the dog, including vomiting and lethargy.
The CDC also reported that four people in Colorado contracted plague from a dog in April. The only other known case of a person getting infected with plague from a dog was in China in 2009.
Some of your feline’s favorite activities, licking and scratching, can give you the bacterium that causes cat scratch fever. An estimated 40% of cats carry the bacteria, and kittens are more likely to pass it along. Although it is pretty rare for people to get infected (one estimate puts the number at 2.5 in 100,000 people), they typically develop redness at the site of infection and swollen lymph nodes. Fleas carry the cat scratch bacterium, so it is important to control fleas, Rabinowitz said.
Cats can be a danger to pregnant women because cats carry toxoplasmosis. Although the parasite is not usually associated with disease, it can cause birth defects. Pregnant women should get a pass on cleaning the litter box.
Aspros said he thinks the concern over cats transmitting toxoplasmosis can be overstated, and people are more likely to get infected by eating contaminated beef and other meats.
Hamsters and other small, so-called pocket pets, including mice and guinea pigs, can carry a disease with a big name: lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus, or LCMV. They can get it from exposure to other pet or wild rodents. Although it is rare for people to be infected, it can happen through contact with rodent droppings, urine and saliva. The virus typically causes flu-like symptoms, including fever and muscle aches, but it can, in rare cases, lead to neurological problems, such as confusion and hearing loss.
The CDC recommends a number of steps to reduce your risk, including avoiding animals that seem lethargic and adopting your pocket pet from a place that monitors their health. Washing your hands and keeping your pet’s cage clean also helps.
Birds of a feather flock together, and also with the bacterium that causes parrot fever. Although the bacterium responsible for the disease rarely causes symptoms in the birds it infects, including parrots, parakeets and macaws, it can cause fever, chills, headache and pneumonia in people who pick it up from inhaling bird droppings. Fortunately the number of cases has been on the decline since the late 1980s, with only 50 known cases since 1996, probably because there are better diagnostic tests in birds. Those Pollys that have been in contact with birds outside the home are at increased risk of carrying the bacterium.
Petting zoos and county fairs have been associated with outbreaks of E. coli and flu. In 2004, 82 people came down with diarrhea after visiting a petting zoo at the North Carolina State Fair. In 2012, four people got the flu from contact with pigs at a county fair in Indiana.
The CDC advises people visiting petting zoos and county fairs to wash their hands after visiting animals and the areas where they are held. The types of visitors that these events attract could be especially vulnerable because they are often children from cities, whose immune systems might not be trained to deal with disease from farm animals, Rabinowitz said.