Most pet owners don’t read or keep copies of the periodical, Emerging Infectious Diseases. But, when a newspaper cited this journal in an article describing the dangers of sleeping with pets, people took notice. When the same story was repeated hundreds of times, across all kinds of markets over 18 months, more and more individuals began to wonder of their pets should be on the floor instead of the bed. Were these pet owners right to be worried?
It all started in 2010 when a veterinarian and professor at the University of California at Davis, Dr. Bruno Chomel, published an article stating that sleeping with your pets includes the possible risk of contracting zoonotic disease. Zoonoses are illnesses that have the potential of spreading from animals to people.
Despite knowing that it would be an unpopular opinion, Dr. Chomel flatly stated that “pets don’t belong in your bed.” News outlets across the country took the opportunity to share this information with their audiences, generating headlines like “Sleeping With Pets Can Endanger Your Health” or “Cuddling with Dying Pets Gives Owners Scary Infections”.
Make no mistake, the risks of contracting a disease or a parasite from your pet are very real. Fungal diseases like ringworm, bacterial infections like the plague and even certain parasites are all capable of transmission from our dogs and cats directly to us. The real questions, though, are just how common are these issues and what can pet owners do to prevent the diseases?
The good news is that it is not difficult to prevent or minimize the risks for zoonotic diseases. Dr. Elizabeth Bradt, a veterinarian in Salem, MA says that “maintaining good hygiene practices and always washing your hands after interacting with your pet goes a long way to prevent these sorts of problems.” In one of the cases outlined in the Emerging Infectious Diseases journal, an elderly man recovering from surgery allowed his dog in bed with him. The dog licked the man’s incision site leading to a case of meningitis.
In other serious cases, three pet owners were hospitalized with rare respiratory illnesses after providing palliative care for their dying pets. In each case, the owners developed an infection caused by a type of bacteria of the Pasturella species that are common in the mouths of our pets. These owners shared utensils with their pets and allowed their animals to lick them for extended periods of time. Thankfully, all three owners recovered with a short course of antibiotics.
All of these individuals put themselves at a higher risk for transmission of disease because of their actions.
Beyond routine hygiene, regular preventive care for your pets is another great safety precaution that any pet owner can take to avoid zoonotic diseases. Pet owners should carefully consider their veterinarian’s recommendations in order to keep the whole family healthy.
As an example, fleas are the natural carriers of the bacteria causing the plague. Keeping pets on safe and effective flea medications can help prevent this deadly illness from occurring as well as prevent other problems like tularemia (rabbit fever), cat-scratch disease or even tapeworms. In another case listed in the Dr. Chomel’s article, he cites a young boy contracting plague because he slept with his flea infested cat. If this cat had been on a flea preventive, the likelihood of the boy contracting this illness would have been greatly reduced.
Dr. Bradt also says that “the bottom line is that you can catch a disease from your pet whether you sleep with them or not. There is nothing inherently dangerous about sleeping with a pet.” Don’t let unfounded fears keep you from the unconditional love of a pet. Ask your veterinarian how you can keep your pet healthy and a part of your family.