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Doctors Don't Always Ask About Pet-Related Health Risks

Reptiles like leopard geckos can bring Salmonella along with them. iStockphoto hide caption

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Reptiles like leopard geckos can bring Salmonella along with them.

iStockphoto

If you're being treated for cancer, an iguana might not be the pet for you.

Ditto if you're pregnant, elderly or have small children at home.

Pets can transmit dozens of diseases to humans, but doctors aren't always as good as they should be in asking about pets in the home and humans' health issues, a study finds.

And that goes for people doctors and animal doctors. "The fact that they're equally uneducated is concerning," says Jason Stull, an assistant professor of veterinary preventive medicine at Ohio State University and lead author of the review, which was published Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. "There hasn't been a great dialogue between the veterinary community, the human health community and the public."

The people doctors aren't asking their patients what kind of pets they have, Stull says, and veterinarians aren't asking owners about health issues that might increase their risk of acquiring unpleasant, even life-threatening, infections. His paper includes a long list of possibilities, including:

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  • Dog and cats can transmit bacteria like Campylobacter jejeuni that cause nasty intestinal problems, as well as antibiotic-resistant bugs like MRSA. Pets might pick up MRSA while visiting people in the hospital, the report notes.
  • Amphibians, reptiles, rodents and young poultry can spread Salmonella. Back in 2013 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned of an outbreak of a rare strain of Salmonella among people who had pet hedgehogs, and suggested that people lay off cuddling the adorable creatures.
  • Parasites like giardia and Cryptosporidium cause diarrheal disease and can be spread by dogs and cats. Those are nasty but treatable. Rarer parasites like Echinococcus tapeworms can cause liver failure and death.

People should be sure to let their human health-care providers know that they have pets, Stull says, and let the vet know if there are family members who are at greater risk of animal-borne infections. That includes children under age 5, pregnant women, older people, and anyone with a weakened immune system due to things like chemotherapy, HIV/AIDS or organ transplants.

If you're intrigued by the notion of Fluffy as disease vector, you've got friends at Worms and Germs, a blog from the University of Guelph. They're closely following the new outbreak of canine flu, for example.

"People don't even think of their pets as a possible source of disease," Stull says. "I'm not saying that people should be overly concerned, for the vast majority of the public." Good hand-washing habits can go a long way toward reducing risk in many cases, he adds.

"We're not saying get rid of pets. We're not saying stop getting pets. We're just saying make good choices."