THE BLOG
11/04/2014 01:33 pm ET Updated Jan 04, 2015

Safely Living With Pets: Don't Let Your Pet Lick Your Face and Other Helpful Tips

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In 2012, the American Veterinary Medical Association estimated that 56 percent of all United States households own a pet. There are over 69 million dogs and 36 million cats in American households. Our pets are family members; we love, play, share our food, and celebrate holidays with them. In fact, a recent survey by a mattress company discovered that 71 percent of pet owners sleep with their pet. Of those pet owners who share their bed with their furry family member, 52 percent let their pet lie at their feet. Twenty-three percent snuggle with them, 11 percent share a pillow and 14 percent let them sleep underneath their covers. I admit my dog and two cats sleep on our bed.

Am I concerned that I may catch a disease from my pet? Yes, as a practicing veterinarian I am acutely aware of bacterial, viral, fungal and parasitic diseases that can be transmitted between animals and humans, called zoonotic diseases.

Giardia, a protozoa found in contaminated soil and water, is a zoonotic disease that causes diarrhea in pets and humans. I see this disease at least twice daily in my Chicago practice. A recent study found Giardia in the feces of 8 percent dogs and 4 percent cats in United States. Another zoonotic disease, called Leptospirosis, is transmitted by drinking water contaminated by urine of infected wildlife-like rats, mice, raccoons, opossums and skunks. It causes life-threatening kidney and liver disease. It is a rising cause of illness in my practice.

My goal today is not to frighten you on the hazards of pet ownership and your enjoyment of wildlife, but to educate you on how to safely live with them in your home and from afar.

Reduce you and your pet's risk of acquiring a zoonotic disease by:

*At least TWICE yearly have your pet's stool sample evaluated for parasites by your veterinarian. Most worms are not visable to the naked eye and are discovered only with the aid of a microscope.

*Give your dog a monthly heartworm preventative that contains a prophylactic dewormer for gastrointestinal parasites, like hookworms and roundworms.

*Discourage your pet from licking your face. Pets can harbor many bacterial organisms in their mouth that may NOT be problematic to them but can be to elderly or immunocompromised people. Capnocytophaga canimorsus and Pasteurella multocida are two bacterial infections that can cause severe disease in these two high-risk groups. In addition, pets frequently lick their anus and can possibly transmit fecal pathogens to you when they lick your mouth.

*Discourage cats from roaming and hunting outdoors for these cats are more likely to shed Salmonella and Toxoplasmosis in their feces.

*Wash any bite or scratch wound immediately with soapy water. Contact your doctor if the wound is deep or within days notice redness, purulent discharge or swelling at site.

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 40 percent of all cats carry Bartonella hensale at some time in their life. This bacterium is found in the saliva of infected cats and causes Cat Scratch Fever in people. It is transmitted to people by cat bites or scratches. This bacterium causes fever, swelling and enlarged lymph nodes in people and requires immediate medical attention by your physician. To reduce the spread of this disease, please keep cat's nails trimmed short

*Practicing safe food preparation hygiene: wash hands before handling food, wash vegetables and fruit well before eating, and do not use the same utensils when handling raw meat and vegetables.

According to the CDC, one out of every 6 persons in United States will suffer a food borne illness every year.

*Cooking food to safe internal temperatures. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends the internal temperature of steak and fish to be 145 degrees and held for 15 seconds to kill harmful bacteria. The safe internal temperature of pork, beef, eggs, chicken and casserole dishes is 160 to165 degrees and held for 15 seconds.

*Not feeding your pet raw meat - which may be contaminated with Salmonella, Escherichia coli and Clostridium. In a recent study, 14 percent of feces from pets fed raw meat contain salmonella.

*Picking up your pet's waste and disposing properly. Please do not flush feces down the toilet because it can lead to contamination of our water system.

*Spraying elimination sites with dilute bleach (1 part bleach to 10 parts water mixed in a spray bottle) when your pet has diarrhea. This practice will kill and prevent spread of infectious agents to other living beings.

*Vaccinating your pet against zoonotic diseases like Rabies and Leptospirosis.

*Not letting your pet drink out of potentially contaminated water sources: like rainwater puddles, ponds, rivers fountains, and communal water dishes outside storefronts.

*Not touching or accessorizing your life with wildlife.
Although fascinating to watch in the wild, raccoons should not be pets. Raccoons may carry the following zoonotic diseases: rabies, leptospirosis and raccoon roundworms (Baylisascaris).

*Eliminating or reducing the population of rodents in your neighborhood by keeping garbage in closed containers. I am not proud of the fact that Chicago is frequently listed among the top 10 cities in United States with the greatest rat population.

*Washing your hands after touching your pet.

*Wiping your pet's feet after walking outside and its anal area after eliminating with hypoallergenic diaper wipes.

*Please contact your veterinarian to discuss your concerns for zoonotic diseases especially if young children or an immune compromised adult is living in your home.

*If your pet is sick, seek veterinary care.

To the 67 million households that own at least one pet, enjoy safely living with your pet by following these recommendations. To those who do not yet have a pet, I strongly urge you to consider fostering a homeless pet to see if you might enjoy their amazing companionship!

Dr. Donna Solomon is a veterinarian at Animal Medical Center of Chicago and invites you to email her your questions or future topic ideas to doctors@animalmedicalcenterofchicago.com.