Caring for pets is a great learning experience for kids, teaching them responsibility,
gentleness, and respect for other living beings. Like adults, kids can benefit from
the companionship, affection, and relationships they share with their pets.
But animals and pets can spread infections to humans, especially kids. So if you're
thinking about buying a pet, or already have one, it's important to know how to protect
your family from infections.
How Pets Spread Infections
Like people, all animals carry germs.
Illnesses common among housepets — such as distemper, canine parvovirus, and
heartworms — can't spread to humans.
But pets also carry certain bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi that can cause
illness if transmitted to humans. Humans get these animal-borne diseases when they're
bitten or scratched or have contact with an animal's waste, saliva, or dander.
These diseases can affect humans in many ways. They're of greatest concern to young
children, infants, pregnant women, and people whose immune systems have been compromised
by illness or disease. Infants and kids younger than 5 years old are at risk because
their immune systems are still developing, and some infections that might make an
adult just mildly sick can be more serious for them.
Healthy Family, Healthy Pets
But you don't have to give up your family's furry friends either. Pets can enrich
your family life, and taking a few precautions can protect your kids from getting
Protecting your family from pet-related infections begins before bringing a pet
home. For instance, reptiles and amphibians should not be allowed as pets in any household
with infants and young children.
Also consider the health and age of your kids before getting a pet. A pet that
would require frequent handling is not recommended for any immunocompromised child
(such as a child who has HIV,
has cancer and is undergoing
chemotherapy, or uses prednisone frequently). Kids with eczema
should probably avoid aquariums.
Dogs and Cats
Dogs and cats are popular pets but can carry infections such as:
infection: can be spread by household pets carrying
Campylobacter jejuni bacteria, which cause diarrhea, abdominal pain, and
fever in people. The bacteria may be in the intestinal tract of infected dogs, cats,
hamsters, birds, and certain farm animals. A person can become infected through contact
with contaminated water, feces, undercooked meat, or unpasteurized milk.
More than 2 million cases of campylobacter infection happen each year in the United
States, and C. jejuni is now the leading cause of bacterial gastroenteritis.
These infections are contagious, especially among members of the same family and kids
in childcare or preschools. Infection is treated with antibiotics.
disease: can happen when a person is bitten or scratched
by a cat infected with Bartonella henselae bacteria. Symptoms include swollen
and tender lymph nodes, fever, headaches, and tiredness, which usually ease without
treatment. However, a doctor may prescribe antibiotics if the infection is severe.
Cat scratch disease rarely causes long-term complications.
a serious illness caused by a virus that enters the body through a bite or wound contaminated
by the saliva from an infected animal. Animals that may carry the rabies virus include
dogs, cats, raccoons, bats, skunks, and foxes. Widespread immunization of dogs and
cats has decreased the transmission of rabies in these animals and in people. Human
rabies is rare in the United States, and a vaccine is available for treatment following
a bite from a potentially rabid animal.
spotted fever (RMSF): spread by ticks infected
by the Rickettsia ricketsii bacteria. These ticks are frequently carried
by dogs. Symptoms include high fever, chills, muscle aches, and headaches, and a rash
that may spread across the wrists, ankles, palms, soles, and trunk of the body. RMSF,
which can be treated with antibiotics, is most common in the south central and the
mid-south Atlantic regions of the United States.
skin infection caused by several types of fungi found in the soil and on the skin
of humans and pets. Kids can get ringworm from touching infected animals such as dogs
and cats. Ringworm of the skin, or tinea corporis, usually is a dry, scaly round area
with a raised red bumpy border and a clear center. When the scalp is affected, the
area may be flaky, red, or swollen. Often there are bald patches. Ringworm is treated
with antifungal medicines including shampoo, cream, or oral medicine.
an illness caused by the parasitic roundworm Toxocara, which lives in the
intestines of dogs and cats. The eggs from the worms are passed in the feces of dogs
and cats, often contaminating soil where kids play. When a child ingests the contaminated
soil, the eggs hatch in the intestine and the larvae spread to other organs, an infection
known as visceral larva migrans. Symptoms include fever, cough or wheezing, enlarged
liver, rash, or swollen lymph nodes. Symptoms may clear up on their own or a doctor
may prescribe drugs to kill the larvae. When the larvae in the intestine make their
way through the bloodstream to the eye, it is known as ocular toxocariasis,
or ocular larva migrans, which may lead to a permanent loss of vision.
contracted after contact with a parasite found in cat feces. In most healthy people,
toxoplasma infection causes no symptoms. When symptoms do happen, they may include
swollen glands, tiredness, muscle pain, fever, sore throat, and a rash. In pregnant
women, toxoplasmosis can cause miscarriage, premature births, and severe illness and
blindness in newborns. Pregnant women should avoid contact with litter boxes. People
whose immune systems have been weakened by illnesses such as HIV or cancer are at
risk for severe complications from toxoplasmosis infection.
Dog and cat bites: may become infected and cause serious problems,
particularly bites to the face and hands. Cat bites tend to be worse, partly because
they are deeper puncture wounds. Significant bites should be washed out thoroughly.
Often these bite wounds require treatment in a doctor's office or emergency room;
antibiotics are sometimes necessary.
Pet birds, even if they are kept in a cage, may transmit these diseases:
Cryptococcosis: a fungal disease contracted when someone inhales
organisms found in bird droppings, especially from pigeons, that can cause pneumonia.
People with weakened immune systems from illnesses such as HIV or cancer are at increased
risk of contracting this disease and developing serious complications, such as meningitis.
Psittacosis: also known as parrot fever, a bacterial illness
that can happen from contact with infected bird feces or with the dust that builds
up in birdcages. Symptoms include coughing, high fever, and headache. It is treated
Reptiles and Amphibians
Reptiles (including lizards, snakes, and turtles) and amphibians (including frogs,
toads, and salamanders) put kids at risk for:
Reptiles and amphibians shed Salmonella in their feces. Touching the reptile's
skin, cage, and other contaminated surfaces can lead to infection. Salmonellosis
causes symptoms such as abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting, and fever. Young children
are at risk for more serious illness, including dehydration,
meningitis, and sepsis (blood infection).
Handling and caring for rodents — including hamsters and gerbils —
as well as fish can place kids at risk for:
Lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV): People can get LCMV
by inhaling particles that come from urine, feces, or saliva from infected rodents,
such as mice and hamsters. LCMV infection can cause flu-like symptoms — fever,
tiredness, headaches, muscle aches, nausea, and vomiting — and may even lead
to meningitis (an
inflammation of the membrane that surrounds the brain and spinal cord) and encephalitis
(an inflammation of the brain). As with most viruses, there is no specific treatment,
but some patients might need to be hospitalized. Like toxoplasmosis, LCM may be passed
from an infected pregnant woman to her fetus.
Mycobacterium marinum: This infection may happen in people exposed
to contaminated water in aquariums or pools. Although mycobacterium marinum
infections are generally mild and limited to the skin, they can be more severe in
people with HIV or weakened immune systems.
Precautions When Adopting or Buying a Pet
If you're adopting or buying a pet, make sure the breeder, shelter, or store has
a good reputation and vaccinates all of its animals. A reputable breeder should belong
to a national or local breeding club, such as the American Kennel Club. Contact the
Humane Society of the United States or your veterinarian for information about animal
shelters in your area.
As soon as you choose a family pet, take it to a local veterinarian for vaccinations
and a physical exam. Don't forget to routinely vaccinate your pet on a schedule recommended
by your vet — this will keep your pet healthy and reduce the risk that infections
will spread to your kids.
You'll also want to regularly feed your pet nutritious animal food (ask your vet
for suggestions) and provide plenty of fresh water. Avoid feeding your pet raw meat
because this can be a source of infection, and do not allow your pet to drink toilet
water because infections can be spread through saliva, urine, and feces.
Limit young kids' contact with outdoor pets that hunt and kill for food because
a pet that ingests infected meat may get an infection that can be passed to people.
Safely Caring for Your Pet
Here are some tips to help your family safely care for pets:
Always wash your
hands, especially after touching your pet, handling your pet's food, or cleaning
your pet's cage, tank, or litter box. Wear gloves when cleaning up after an animal's
waste, and if you have a bird, wear a dust mask over your nose and mouth when cleaning
the cage to prevent inhaling urine or fecal particles. Don't have kids clean cages
or litter boxes unless there is supervision or until they know how to do this safely
and responsibly (and again, hands should be washed afterward).
Avoid kissing or touching your pet with your mouth because infections can spread
through saliva. Also, don't share food with your pet.
Keep your pet's living area clean and free of waste. If your pet eliminates waste
outdoors, pick up waste regularly and don't allow kids to play in that area.
Don't allow pets in areas where food is prepared or handled, and don't bathe your
pet or clean aquariums in the kitchen sink or bathtub. Wash your pet outdoors or talk
to your veterinarian about professional pet grooming.
Avoid strange animals or those that appear sick. Never adopt a wild animal as
Watch kids carefully around pets. Small children are more likely to catch infections
from pets because they crawl around on the floor with the animals, kiss them or share
food with them, or put their fingers in the pets' mouths and then put their dirty
fingers in their own mouths. Also, if kids visit a petting zoo, farm, or a friend's
house where there are animals, make sure they know the importance of hand washing.
For your pet's comfort and for your family's safety, control flea and tick problems
in your pet. Fleas and ticks can carry diseases that may be easily passed to kids.
Oral and topical medicines are available for flea and tick control; avoid using flea
collars because kids can handle them and become sick from the chemicals they contain.
Check your pet regularly for fleas and ticks, as well as bites and scratches that
may make them more open to infection. Keep your pet leashed when outdoors and keep
it away from animals that look sick or may be unvaccinated.
And, finally, spay or neuter your pet. Spaying and neutering may reduce your pet's
contact with other animals that may be infected, especially if your pet goes outdoors.