Pets are generally great for kids, provided the children are developmentally ready to benefit from having an animal in the house. More than half of all American households have pets, and health care providers are becoming more aware of the positive emotional and physical effect that pets have on their owners. In general pets pose less of a threat of infection than other children do, but there are some diseases that you should know about if you have a pet in the house. Dogs and Cats A Special Note About Cats Turtles and Other Reptiles Birds Hamsters Reducing the Risk for Pet Pests Dogs and Cats Fleas
Probably the most common problem that dogs and cats bring to humans is flea infestation. Fleabites can cause an annoying itchy rash that can become infected with bacteria, though serious disease is rare. Ticks
Dogs who run in the woods can pick up ticks and pass them to humans. Ticks may stick to skin for several days, but are rarely painful or itchy. Wood ticks can spread Rocky Mountain spotted fever, a rare but serious disease. The symptoms are fever, headache, and rash on the body, palms, and soles of the feet. The disease can progress to meningitis, or brain infection, and be fatal if not treated with antibiotics. Check animals and humans for ticks after every outing. Ringworm
Dogs and cats can also carry the common fungus that causes ringworm in humans. Ringworm is an itchy rash in the shape of a ring that despite the name is not caused by worms. The pink rings can appear anywhere on the body; you treat them with a topical antifungal ointment. Up to 30 percent of human cases of ringworm originate with a dog or cat. Bites
When dogs and cats bite humans, they can cause a lot of damage as well as put the person at risk for infection with tetanus, or lockjaw. Cat bites are particularly risky because the deep puncture woods are difficult to clean out. Cats and dogs carry bacteria in their saliva called Pasturella multicoda, which may require antibiotics. Rabies is rare in the United States and almost all cases are from wild animals, but unvaccinated pets do pose a risk. No pet is entirely guaranteed not to bite around unpredictable young children. Worms
Dogs and cats can pass two types of worms to humans through their feces: roundworms and hookworms. Roundworms produce a disease called visceral larva migrans (VLM), whose symptoms are chronic fever, cough, weight loss, and joint and muscle pain. Hookworms produce a disease called cutaneous larva migrans (CLM). Young children are at greatest risk for both diseases because they crawl around the house and yard. Antibiotics can treat both diseases if the disease is diagnosed correctly. Bacteria
Campylobacter and salmonella are two bacteria that cause bloody diarrhea in humans. Humans usually come in contact with the bacteria through eating poorly cooked poultry or raw eggs. The bacteria are usually spread from human to human, but dogs and cats can also pick them up and pass them to their owners. If Rover is sick, watch the kids closely. Don’t serve raw poultry to anyone, including pets, and carefully clean surfaces used to prepare poultry for cooking. Leptospirosis is another unusual disease that can pass from dogs to humans if an infected dog’s urine gets in the water supply. The symptoms are initially fever, headache, and muscle ache, followed by rash, meningitis, and inflammation of the eyes and muscles. There have been some recent outbreaks in the United States but once recognized they are easily handled. The treatment is antibiotics, but there is also a vaccine for dogs. A Special Note About Cats
Toxoplasmosis is a microscopic organism that lives in the intestines of cats. Cats shed the eggs in their feces and can pass infection to humans who change the litter box or get infected soil on their hands. Most adults have few or no symptoms, so a pregnant woman can pass the disease unknowingly to her unborn child, seriously affecting its brain and eyes. Pregnant women and cats don’t mix, so don’t bring a new cat into the house if you are expecting or are planning to be. However, if you’ve had a cat in the house for a long time, it has already infected you and poses no risk of fetal infection, as you are already immune. Ask someone who isn’t expecting to change the box. If that isn’t possible, use rubber gloves and wash your hands thoroughly each time. People catch cat-scratch disease when an infected cat scratches them or licks an open wound. The person develops a red pimple at the scratch site that blisters and then causes large painful lymph nodes. A whole body rash, fever, and headache may follow. Antibiotics can treat the disease but it may be difficult to diagnose unless you’re aware of the cat scratch. Turtles and Other Reptiles
Turtles and other pet reptiles are known to carry salmonella, a bacteria that causes bloody diarrhea and dehydration in humans. Young children should not handle pet reptiles, and older children should wash their hands immediately afterward. Birds
Pet birds can carry a bacteria that causes psittacosis, a rare lung infection in children. The bird sheds the organism in its droppings, and humans can inhale or ingest the organism while cleaning the cage. Keep birdcages clean so the droppings don’t build up. When cleaning the cage, do it gently to minimize the spread of debris. Hamsters
can carry a virus that causes fever, headache, and meningitis in humans. Humans can become infected when they inhale or ingest dust or food contaminated by the body secretions of the pet hamster. If a pregnant women becomes infected, the fetus can develop brain and eye disease. The disease, called lymphocytic choriomeningitis, rarely affects children. Again, don’t bring new pets into a household with a pregnant woman. Reducing the Risk for Pet Pests
Although owning a pet can sound like having a land mine in the house, it’s really not if you follow some simple suggestions:
- Vaccinate pets for rabies and leptospirosis. It’s good for the pet and for the kids.
- Talk to your veterinarian about screening for worms. Take new pets to the veterinarian for deworming before you bring them into your home.
- Take sick pets to the veterinarian, especially for diarrhea.
- To prevent bites, always closely supervise small children around pets. Never trust a young child alone with a pet.
- Teach older children to avoid unfamiliar pets and to leave sleeping and eating pets alone.
- Do not take pets into children’s playgrounds, and clean up after your pet when it defecates in public.
- Remove dog and cat feces from lawns and litter boxes at least weekly. Give that job to a non-pregnant person, either an older child or an adult who can practice safe handling and good hand washing
- Don’t give turtles or other reptiles to young children.
- Practice good flea and tick control for your pet. But if you use a pesticide dip, be sure your young child isn’t exposed to it, as they can be toxic to young children. If you use a flea spraying service for the house or yard, remember that the pesticide concentrates on the floor and grass, places where young children spend a lot of time. If you have a young child, it’s better to treat the dog specifically and leave play spaces free of chemicals.
- Teach children to wash their hands after handling their pet or its bedding or cage.