New study warns you can catch diseases from your pets

Researchers at Ohio State University have scrutinized 500 studies and discovered that health professionals are not adequately explaining the risk of pets passing diseases along to their owners. Now they're urging physicians and veterinarians to improve their efforts to communicate those risks to their clients--and offering tips to pet owners about how to minimize their chances of catching illnesses from their four-legged, finned or scaled friends.

According to the OSU review, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, people can catch nearly 20 diseases from pets, including Salmonella, E. coli and roundworms. Pets naturally shed disease-causing organisms, which their owners can pick up when they cuddle or handle the animals. People with compromised immune systems are especially at risk.

Among the diseases that pets can pass to humans is the antibiotic-resistant bug MRSA, which dogs and cats can transmit, according to the study. Amphibians, rodents, birds and reptiles can pass along Salmonella. In fact, in 2013, the CDC warned of a rare strain of the bug that people were catching from their pet hedgehogs.

But the researchers found that doctors often don't ask their patients about the pets they have at home.

"There hasn't been a great dialogue between the veterinary community, the human health community and the public," said Jason Stull, an assistant professor of veterinary preventive medicine at OSU and the lead author of the paper, in an interview with NPR. "People don't even think of their pets as a possible source of disease."

Stull isn't suggesting that people abandon their pets or shy away from pet ownership. For anyone in the market for a pet, he suggests reaching out to veterinarians and doctors to discuss any health issues in the home that may point to the most appropriate choice of animal. And those who own pets already and are vulnerable to health issues should embrace basic safe practices, such as washing their hands after handling their pets and wearing protective gloves when they clean cages and aquariums, he suggests.

Improving the overall understanding of so-called zoonotic diseases--illnesses that can be passed from animals to people--is a priority of several organizations and academic institutions around the world, and an important element of a movement called One Health. In March, animal health giant Zoetis ($ZTS) promoted a One Health approach to combating both human and animal diseases at a conference in Amsterdam, where executives estimated that 75% of emerging illnesses can be passed from animals to people.

Stull suggests that when it comes to pet ownership, there should be more communication about the potential health risks between veterinarians and physicians--and between all health providers and the people they serve.

"Pets do so much good for people in terms of mental, physical, and emotional health," Stull said in a press release issued by OSU. "But at the same time, they can transmit diseases to us. Physicians, veterinarians, and the public have to work together to make sure the benefits outweigh the risks."

- here's the OSU press release
- access the CMAJ article here (sub. req.)
- read more at NPR's blog