What if you kissed your pet

In the last few decades, our relationship with animals has drastically changed. A recent survey found that 69% of Australian homes have at least one animal. Our furry friends cost us an estimated A$33billion a year.

Our pets may carry infectious diseases which can be transmitted to us. The risk is relatively low for most people.

Some people, like pregnant women and those with weak immune systems, have a higher risk to get sick from animals. It’s vital to be aware of the risks and to take precautions in order to avoid infection.

Read more: Health Check: what bugs can you catch from your pets?

What diseases can pets carry?

The diseases that spread from animals to people are known as zoonotic or animal diseases. It is known that more than 70 pathogens from companion animals can be transmitted to humans.

A pet with a zoonotic disease may appear sick. There may not be any visible symptoms. This makes it easier to detect, as you are unaware that your pet is carrying germs.

Zoonoses are transmitted either directly or indirectly. They can be spread by pets, for example, through saliva, bodily liquids, and feces.

According to studies, pet-associated zoonoses are rare. The true number of infections may be underestimated, as many zoonoses do not have ” notifyable“, multiple exposure pathways, or generic symptoms.

Dogs and cats can be major reservoirs for zoonotic diseases (pathogens that naturally exist in the population). Viruses and bacteria cause these infections. Dogs are the primary source of rabies in endemic areas of Africa and Asia. Rabies is spread through saliva.

Read more: Explainer: the rabies virus

Dogs also commonly carry Capnocytophaga bacteria in their mouths and saliva , which can be transmitted to people through close contact or bites. The vast majority of people won’t get sick, but these bacteria can occasionally cause infections in people with weakened immune systems, resulting in severe illness and sometimes death. Just last week, such a death was reported in Western Australia .

The zoonoses that are cat-associated include illnesses such as giardiasis (a parasitic disease), campylobacteriosis (a bacterial infection), salmonellosis (a gastrointestinal illness) and toxoplasmosis. It’s important to wash hands or wear gloves when handling the litter tray of your cat.

Cats can also sometimes transmit infections through bites and scratches, including the aptly named cat scratch, caused by Bartonella Henselae.

Both dogs and cats are also reservoirs for methicillin-resistant bacterium Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), with close contact with pets identified as an important risk factor for zoonotic transmission.

The bacteria in dog saliva can be deadly to some people. Shutterstock

Read more: Cats carry diseases that can be deadly to humans, and it’s costing Australia $6 billion every year

Birds, turtles and fish can also transmit disease

Not only dogs and cats can transmit diseases to humans. Pet birds may occasionally transmit pneumonia. This is a bacterial disease that causes pneumonia. Contact with turtles can lead to Salmonella in humans. This is especially true for young children. Even pet fish are linked to bacterial infections, such as vibriosis.

The risk of zoonotic infection is increased by close contact with animals and certain behaviors. According to a study in the Netherlands, half of pet owners let their pets lick their faces, and 18% allowed their dogs to share a bed. Sharing a bed can increase the exposure time to pathogens that pets carry. In the same study, 45% of cat owners allowed their cats to jump on top of the kitchen sink.

Pet owners have also reported zoonotic illnesses after kissing their pets. In one case, a Japanese woman developed meningitis after kissing the face of her dog regularly. These bacteria can be found in the mouths of cats and dogs.

Children are more likely to put their hands in the mouth after handling pets, which increases their chances of getting ill with animal-borne disease. Children are less likely to properly wash their hands after handling pets.

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