Question of the Week

June 16, 2003


"More than half of all U.S. households have a companion animal. Pets are more common in households with children, yet there are more pets than children in American households....In evaluating the health benefits of pet-people relationships, one also must consider the safety of this intervention for both people and pets -- for example, dangers to pets associated with chemicals such as insecticides and pesticides and people's risks of infections, allergies, and injuries associated with lack of veterinary medical advice."

In the headlines recently have been incidents where pet owners have become sick from their pets. It has been such an issue that the government has gotten involved.

"The federal government recommended smallpox vaccinations yesterday for all those exposed to monkeypox, including pregnant women and children. It also banned the sale and distribution of prairie dogs in the nation and prohibited the importation of all rodents from Africa....Because the Food and Drug Administration has not approved the smallpox vaccine for monkeypox, the government is making it available under provisions for emergency use....Federal health workers are tracking shipments of potentially infected animals to help prevent the spread of monkeypox and to reduce the chances of the disease's gaining a permanent foothold."

"Monkeypox is a rare viral disease caused by monkeypox virus. The virus can spread from animals to humans (and sometimes from human to human). In humans, monkeypox causes fever, headache, backache, and swollen lymph nodes, followed by a blister-like rash. In some cases, monkeypox can be fatal....The illness was first noted in monkeys in 1958, which is why it was named monkeypox. However, other animals can get monkeypox too. The first cases of monkeypox in humans were seen in 1970....In early June 2003, monkeypox was reported among several people in the United States. This is the first outbreak of human monkeypox in the United States. Most of these people became ill after having contact with pet prairie dogs that were sick. It appears that these prairie dogs might have gotten the virus from animals brought in from Africa to be sold as pets. The imported animals include Gambian giant rats, rope squirrels, dormice, and other small mammals."

What about animals that are not so exotic? Do they pose a threat?

"Keeping any pet poses a variety of health risks regardless of whether that pet is a dog, cat, bird, or reptile. While occurring in far fewer instances than dog bites, or other pet related injuries and illness, reptile associated Salmonellosis does pose a risk to anyone that keeps or handles reptiles and amphibians. According to the Center for Disease Control(CDC) their projected data shows a significant increase in salmonella cases over the last 10 years."

"Salmonella live in the intestinal tracts of humans and other animals, including birds....Many raw foods of animal origin are frequently contaminated, but fortunately, thorough cooking kills Salmonella..... Salmonella may also be found in the feces of some pets, especially those with diarrhea, and people can become infected if they do not wash their hands after contact with these feces. Reptiles are particularly likely to harbor Salmonella and people should always wash their hands immediately after handling a reptile, even if the reptile is healthy. Adults should also be careful that children wash their hands after handling a reptile."

Okay, so one might expect to be careful with animals like exotic rodents or reptiles, but what about the "traditional" pets?

"Some cat-related diseases that make people sick are common, such as cat scratch disease (or cat scratch fever), and others such as plague (play-g), are rare. Toxoplasmosis (TOX-o-plaz-MO-sis) is a disease that can come from cats, but people are more likely to get it from eating raw meat or from gardening. Cats can also carry rabies, a deadly viral disease....To protect yourself from cat-related diseases, * Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and running water after touching cat feces (stool) * Avoid cat scratches and bites * If you are scratched or bitten by a cat, wash the area with soap and running water right away * Vaccinate your cat against rabies."

Now the other side of the story...

"For years, parents have known that pets and children are a good combination. Now, research is demonstrating that children can benefit from animal companionship....Pets are a wonderful stress buster for kids. One study revealed that children who had a dog present during their physical examinations had lower heart rates, reduced blood pressure and less behavioural distress than when the dog was not present. Pets are wonderful playmates and sympathetic listeners. They also stimulate communication skills in children. A study of 455 school children between the ages of 11 and 16 revealed that children with pets had a better ability to understand non-verbal communications."

"A study by the US Department of Health concluded that pets increased the survival rate of heart attack victims. The study revealed that 28% of heart patients with pets survived serious heart attacks, compared to only 6% of heart patients without pets. Another study revealed that the cholesterol levels of pet owners were 2% lower than the cholesterol levels of people without pets. The risk of those pet owners having a heart attack was reduced by 4%. Owning a pet can reduce blood pressure as effectively as eating a low-salt diet or reducing alcohol intake."

As with many things, pet ownership has risks and benefits. When choosing whether or not to get a pet, or when choosing what kind of pet to get, there are many things to consider.

Questions of the Week:
What do possible pet owners need to research and educate themselves about when making a decision about a prospective pet? What aspects of this decision would vary between households? What unique circumstances might make a pet a more positive (or more negative) addition to a home? What should all (or most) people and/or families consider when making a decision about pet ownership?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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