Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Spreading from Pet to Owner, or Vice Versa?

Pet Column for the week of August 11, 2008

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Services - Public Health

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Ashley Mitek
Information Specialist

When you just can't beat that cold and head to the doctor, the person in the white coat might ask if anyone else in your household is sick. Yet questioning the health of your tailed, winged, or scaled companion is doubtful. But should they?

Dr. Yvette Johnson is an assistant professor at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine who studies how infectious diseases spread between humans and animals. "Pet owners should always remember that the health of their pet can impact the health of their family," she explains. This is why it is critical that your pet be up to date on all its vaccines, heartworm treatments, as well as flea and tick preventatives.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that, "although dogs can pass germs to people, you are not likely to get sick from touching or owning dogs." Dr. Johnson agrees and says, "I think the media tends to make things look frightening, and I don't think this is anything people need to be scared about."

However, she does mention that toddlers crawling around on the floor and putting everything they see in their mouth are at an increased risk. "That age group is certainly more prone to getting a parasite from their dog or cat," explains Dr. Johnson. Other segments of the population at increased risk are those with an underlying health problem, such as immuno-compromised individuals.

Despite the fact that most veterinarians and researchers believe there is little risk of pets transmitting diseases to their owners and vice versa, there have been some very interesting documented cases of household pets carrying the same strain of bacteria that was causing an infection in their owner. For example, two cases of urinary tract infections in women have been associated with shedding of the same organism by their pet.

However, the spread of infectious disease is never a one-way street. "In some cases reported in the literature, people have infected their pets with MRSA (Methicillin Resistant Staph Aureus) and it has later been transmitted back to the people," she says.

Because of this Dr. Johnson explains that, "people who tend to have repeat infections that don't seem to be cured with the appropriate treatment may want to have their pet screened to make sure they are not the reservoir for the disease."

Dr. Johnson recently finished a trial with horses and their owners to see if there was a correlation between both of them carrying Methicillin Resistant strains of Staph bacteria. It turns out there was. Now she has expanded the project to include dogs, cats, and their owners.

When asked what the most prevalent diseases that spread from pet to human are, Dr. Johnson says, "I'd probably say that one of the most common is ringworm, especially in cats." But she goes on to say that, "It's hard to say what bacteria and viruses are passed from pet to human, and it's much more likely that it has happened and we just have not noticed."

For more information on zoonotic diseases contact your veterinarian, and remember that washing your hands after playing with your pet or handling its food and treats is one of the best preventative measures you can take.