4 Ways Your Pet Can Make You Sick

by Pamela J. Hobart
dog, pet
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It's easy to get so caught up in loving your furkids that you don't even realize all the potential ways your pet could be making you sick. Far beyond the ordinary realm of allergies to pets, there is a wide world of pet-related health conditions that you could be unwittingly exposing yourself to. Personally, I remember reading the parasite brochure that the veterinarian sent home with me in horror shortly after I adopted my first dog. Of course they want to sell you more de-wormer, but that brochure wasn't lying about the possibility of pet-to-human disease, and it's enough to make you queasy the next time your pet wants to cuddle.

But are these potential health threats really a reason not to adopt a pet (or even to get rid of the one you already have)? I'd say definitely not. With a little knowledge of the risks, you can prevent most of these pet-related health problems. And anyway, you probably do things all day long that involve some risk (like crossing the street). If you have children or immunocompromised members in your household, some extra precautions may be in order. But pets also offer health benefits, like lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and stress levels, so it's worth your time to avoid these ways your pet might be making you sick.

1. You could develop skin problems

When cats scratch you, you can get the aptly named "cat scratch disease" (it's from a bacteria carried by about 40 percent of cats). Symptoms include headache and fever that occur about three to 14 days following the incident, and you should seek medical attention.

Dogs, cats, and rabbits can give you itchy mites or ringworm (which is actually a skin fungus and not a worm at all). Fleas from pets don't tend to live on people, but that is of cold comfort, because they're happy to bite us all the same. Hanging out with a mangy guinea pig can give you a rash. Even fish can transmit skin infections, like mycobacteriosis.

It's easy to get lazy about these things, but the lesson here is that you should take great care of your pets for your well-being as well as theirs, and don't slack off on hand washing after touching animals (even if they're domestic).

2. You could develop stomach problems

I'm very sad to say that your best furry buddy could make you sick to your stomach by accident, too. Dogs are usually not infected by the bacteria campylobacter, but they do transmit it to humans, and campylobacteriosis involves about a week of cramping, abdominal pain, and severe diarrhea. Reptiles and amphibians are especially known for carrying salmonella, so make sure you wash your hands after you visit your weird friend with the iguana.

3. They sometimes carry parasites

Pets are pretty indiscriminate in what they eat and where they hang out, so it's really no surprise that they might bring some icky parasites home to you (in addition to the skin ones mentioned above). Lyme disease is transmitted via tick bite, and dogs and cats attract ticks frequently. So while your pet can't give you Lyme disease themselves, they might walk a tick that can right into your home.

Hookworm is transmitted to humans when they come into contact with soil contaminated by infected animals' feces. Though the itchy infestation usually resolves itself, it's horribly creepy to think about having these larvae living under your skin, however briefly. If you somehow manage to ingest an infected flea (hey, it happens), contracting tapeworm indirectly via Fluffy or Fido is a real possibility too.

4. Pet-related infections can lead to fatal conditions

Thankfully, most of the conditions mentioned so far are merely unpleasant, but some pet-related infections can be fatal to humans. Though rabies is well-controlled in the United States, precautions are in order if your dog or cat comes into contact with a wild animal, because often there is no way to test that wild animal to see if it had rabies. Early rabies symptoms are much like the flu, but you need to get medical attention quickly because once full-blown rabies strikes it almost always kills infected humans. In case you were thinking of skipping your pet's annual exam and rabies booster, you should probably reconsider!

Dogs and cats can also pass MRSA (a serious, antibiotic-resistant bacterial infection) on to humans. MRSA is usually acquired in the hospital, but contact with an infected animal or its contaminated bedding can also do it. Scary.

Last but not least, your dog or cat could also pass along the bubonic plague to you — seriously — via infected fleas they might bring home (cats are known to get the plague themselves, but dogs are mostly carriers). So flea preventative medication would also be a bad place to try to cut costs in your household budget.

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