To minimize risk, here's what you need to know
BY THOMAS CLAVIN
Source: Reader's Digest, May 1995, pp. 33,36-37,39,41.
When Richard Simms of Conyers, Ga., began experiencing fatigue, irritability and blurred vision, he couldn't understand why. The normally affable 23-year-old grew even more concerned when he started having fits of anger, followed by a steep drop in energy.
Then one day he collapsed in convulsions. Rushed to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, he lapsed into a coma. Doctors diagnosed encephalitis, a brain inflammation that resulted from a cat scratch - apparently by Simms's cat Max.
An estimated 60 percent of Americans share a home with an animal. We keep more than 57 million cats, 53 million dogs and 12 million birds. Unusual animals, such as rodents, reptiles and miniature pigs, are being adopted as pets. Reptiles can now be found in more than 450,000 households.
Having a pet is a wonderful experience - but epidemiologist Dr. Peter Schantz of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta warns that owners should be aware that "approximately four million Americans are infected annually by a "zoonotic" disease [one contracted from an animal]." At least a dozen diseases can be passed along by household pets. Usually only the most serious, like rabies or plague, create headlines.
While rabies in humans is rare, health officials are monitoring the disease because there has been a 95-percent increase in reported cases among animals from 1990 to 1993. Most cases involve wild creatures such as raccoons, skunks, bats and foxes, but the CDC also reports a 54-percent jump in cat rabies, to 391 cases in 1993. In Texas, coyotes have carried a strain that is easily transmitted to unvaccinated dogs.
Plague, rare today, is the "Black Death" that killed 25 million Europeans in the 14th century. Since 1991 there have been about 11 reported cases per year in the United States, mostly involving fleas from wild animals in the West and Southwest. Plague is transmitted by infected fleas - usually on rodents but, says Schantz, sometimes on pets. Both cats and dogs may become infected, but dogs can't transmit plague to humans. Cats have given the disease to 16 people since 1977. Two died. If diagnosed quickly, however, plague is routinely cured by antibiotics.
The vast majority of pet-transmitted diseases are not frightening, fatal disorders. Many are preventable and readily cured - if you know about them. Here are the main hazards to your health - and what you can do about them:
Cat-Scratch Disease. This ailment affects some 22,000 people yearly. It's a bacterial infection often transmitten by a cat's scratch, though sometimes by a bite or a lick. Watch for tender, swollen lymph nodes, brief redness at the scratch site and occassionally fever. Although symptoms may last from two to six months, most patients do not require treatment.
For one or two percent of patients like Richard Simms, however, cat-scratch can be devastating. Simms eventually recovered from his coma. Yet, "even six months later, I was in a haze, feeling like I was living in a dream," he says. Does he still have Max? "Sure - he's my pal. But I'm more careful these days."
Hookworm, Roundworm. You know that dogs and cats can have worms - you may not know that Fido and, to a lesser extent, Fluffy can share them with their owners. Humans are infected through contact with soil containing traces of dog feces, then touching their hands to their mouth without washing them.
Hookworm is a parasite found in some dogs, commonly in humid areas of the country. Eggs pass in dogs' stools and hatch in the soil to produce tiny larvae capable of migrating through human skin. Once under the skin, they cause an intensely itchy rash. Sometimes the illness goes away in a week; other times prescription medicine is needed.
Dr. Lawrence Raymond, associate professor of ophthalmology at the University of Cincinnati, has seen many worm-related eye disorders, especially in younsters. One case involved a ten-year-old infected with a roundworm that traveled through his system and settled in his retina. The worm had already caused some permanent damage to the retina before Raymond destroyed it with a laser.
"There are an estimated 10,000 cases of human roundworm infection each year," says Dr. Schantz. "Of these, more than 700 result in vision impairment."
Ringworm. This is actually a fungus that infects the hair of a dog or cat. The fungi can be transmitted back and forth between humans and pets by direct contact, and in humans can cause such problems and athlete's foot.
Toxoplasmosis. Ironically, this pet-related disease is often overlooked because it's so common. It comes from a parasite found in the feces of infected cats, which pick it up from small rodents. The parasite can survive in a litter box, or in garden soil for up to a year before being brought home by a human - possibly in the dirt under fingernails.
According to Dr. Benjamin Luft, chairman of the Department of Infectious Diseases at the University Medical Center at Stony Brook, N.Y., ten to 40 percent of Americans are infected with toxoplasmosis. Nine out of ten have no symptoms or ill effects. The unlucky ones may experience fever, headache, swollen glands or skin rashes. Tragically, "if a woman acquires it during pregnancy," says Luft, "it can severely damage the fetus." Estimates are that over 3000 babies are born each year with birth defects, including brain damage, because of toxoplasmosis.
A blood test can detect the disease, and anti-parasitic drugs can reduce the chances of transmission to the fetus by 60 percent. But the best course is prevention. If you're pregnant, have someone else clean the litter box, if possible.
Bites. Over 500,000 animal bites occur each year. Even a nip can transmit Pasteurella multocida, a bacterium passed along in one- fourth of all dog and cat bites. The typical sign is swelling where the bite occurred, sometimes accompanied by fever. "It doesn't matter if it was the family pet that bit you," says pediatrician Andrew Margileth of the University of Virginia. "Get the bite checked out." When a strange dog has broken your skin and the animal can't be found and tested, you must get rabies shots.
Psittacosis. Several species of birds, including parrots and parakeets, can transmit this disease to humans through feces and dust from feathers. Symptoms are cough and chest pain, possibly accompanied by fever, chills, muscle aches and vomiting. Certain antibiotics can cure the problem.
Lyme Disease. Infected deer ticks travel into the house on the fur of pets. Typical symptoms are a round bull's-eye-like red spot at the site of the tick bite, weakness, fever, headache, and pain in muscles and joints. If caught early, the disease can be treated with antibiotics. As with toxoplasmosis, if a pregnant woman contracts Lyme, the organism can cause birth defects.
Salmonella. Twenty years ago, pet turtles became a concern when nearly 15 percent of all reported salmonella infections (mostly in chilren) were traced to the tiny creatures. Government restrictions on turtles under four inches in diameter cut down on the disease. But with the popularity of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, turtle ownership has surged, and the risk has risen again. Children should be reminded to wash their hands after handling the pets.
Five-year-old Jonathan Drews woke one night with cramps, diarrhea and vomiting. The symptoms became so severe he was hospitalized for five days. Finally doctors diagnosed salmonella. Several months earlier, the family had bought a turtle carrying the bacteria. One day, their son dropped a plastic block into the turtle's tank - and after retrieving it, Jonathan put the block in his mouth.
Iguanas can also carry salmonella. The New York State Department of Public Health recently warned 1300 pet stores of the potential danger.
Only a small percentage of people contact a disease from a pet. The risk can be diminished by following a few simple precautions:
*Always vaccinate your animal against rabies. If you adopt a stray, take it to the vet for shots.
*Have your dogs and cats checked annually for worms and routinely dewormed as puppies and kittens. And since worm-infested droppings can mix in soil handled by playing children, stress the importance of hand-washing and keeping hands away from the mouth.
*However much you or your children adore your pet, kissing it on the snout is a bad idea. Never allow a dog or cat to eat from your plate.
*Watch birds for decreased appetite and droopy feathers - signs of psittacosis. Wear rubber gloves and - if you suspect a problem - a dust mask when you scour the cage.
*Clean your cat's litter box every day. Rubber gloves protect against contact with parasites. Washing hands and rinsing the litte box with near-boiling water further reduce the risk of contracting toxoplasmosis.
*Check your pet for ticks at least once daily if it roams free.
*Get your dog or cat to the vet for checkups. "If you maintain a pet in good health," says Dr. Leonard Marcus, a Newton, Mass., physician and veterinarian, "it's less likely to have a disease that could be transmitted to the family."
Original Doc: zoonotic.doc