By Christie Long
With few exceptions, pets enrich the lives of the people who own them.
Numerous studies point out the benefits of pet ownership, including reduced development of childhood allergies, reduction in anxiety and heart disease, and even increased chance of making interpersonal connections.
But it’s critical to note that for immunocompromised people, contact with dogs, cats and some exotic pets such as reptiles, can be risky. This is especially important at this time of year, when we often have visitors in our households who may not typically share space with animals.
The group we designate as “immunocompromised” includes the obvious, such as those with immune system diseases such as AIDs and HIV and those undergoing chemotherapy. But it also includes children younger than 5 and the elderly, pregnant women and people on long-term therapy to suppress their immune systems, such as transplant recipients and those with severe asthma.
Diseases that people can catch from animals are termed “zoonotic.” There are quite a few of them out there, including many types of intestinal parasites, ringworm, leptospirosis, salmonella and cat scratch fever, but luckily those of us with healthy immune systems who take simple precautions are at little risk.
Take note: In no way am I suggesting that the immunocompromised should avoid pets or pet ownership, and this article is not your excuse to revoke Great Aunt Agnes’ invitation for Christmas day. With a few simple precautions, pets and the immunocompromised can interact safely and happily.
An excellent resource is The Ohio State University’s fact sheet titled “A Guide to Pet Care for the Immunocompromised.” Frequent hand washing, especially after contact with pets, is paramount. The article lists other recommendations, and also lists those pets that should be completely avoided by the immunocompromised, including primates, reptiles, and puppies and kittens younger than 6 months of age.
The most important advice I can give is twofold. One, see your vet as least yearly, and keep your pet’s vaccinations and deworming regimen up to date. Vaccines typically do not provide lifelong immunity, and deworming needs to be done at regular intervals to keep pets free of parasites such as roundworms and hookworms. In addition, animals can be carriers of zoonotic disease, which means they may appear perfectly healthy but may shed infectious organisms.
Physical examinations by a trained veterinarian and routine testing, such as blood work and yearly fecal exams, can pick up on many of these diseases before they become a problem to the pet or the people who love it.
Secondly, and pardon me if this seems obvious, but if your pet acts sick, take it to your veterinarian. Vets are trained to recognize the symptoms of all animal diseases, especially those that can be transmitted to people.
Your veterinarian can make specific recommendations regarding diagnostic testing to find out if your pet has a zoonotic disease. Once diagnosed, he can then guide you on how to keep your entire family, including the other pets in your household, safe.
Christie Long is a veterinarian at the VCA Animal Hospital in Fort Collins, CO. Long left her job in software sales in 2000 to travel for 13 months. Along the way, she was touched by the plight of the animals she saw and somewhere in the Nepalese Himalayas she vowed to return to school to become a veterinarian. While she often finds end-of-life situations heart-wrenching, she considers herself blessed to be called upon as a trusted adviser to families during difficult times. Dr. Long’s family includes her husband and travel partner, Wiley, their son, Wiley IV, their dogs Pancake and Gizmo and cats Sneaky and Sidh.