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
"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
"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