The Perils of Pet Intimacy

VIDEO: Virginia Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicines Dr. Hodgson explains
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Nikki Moustaki knew something was wrong when she got strep throat for the sixth time in a year. Her doctor wanted to take out her tonsils. But Moustaki, an otherwise healthy 30-something, was determined to uncover the source of the infection.

"I saw a bunch of specialists, and one suggested my dog might be a carrier," said Moustaki, a New York City-based dog expert and trainer. "I had never thought of that. When you think of contagious diseases in dogs you think of rabies and ringworm, you don't think of strep."

After four walks a day on the streets of Hell's Kitchen, Moustaki's dogs -- a schnauzer called Pepper and Ozzie, a schnoodle -- would curl up beside her in bed.

Following her doctor's surprising suggestion, Moustaki started cleaning Pepper and Ozzie's paws with baby wipes after each walk. And she's been strep-free ever since.

Increasingly considered part of the family, pets are thought to live in more than 60 percent of U.S. households, according to a 2009 study.

And they're not just living with us. Polls suggest that half of dog owners and up to three quarters of cat owners sleep with their pets.

With pet intimacy on the rise, a report published in the CDC journal Emerging Infectious Diseases documents some unlikely conditions linked to sleeping with, kissing or being licked by pets. Although the examples are rare, they might make you think twice about snuggling up next to your dog tonight.

MRSA

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infections start out as small, red, pimple-like boils on the skin. But they can quickly evolve into painful abscesses that can burrow through the skin infecting the blood, bones and even the heart. And because they're resistant to typical antibiotics, they can be tricky to treat.

When a 48-year-old diabetic man and has wife had unexplained, recurrent MRSA infections, doctors tested their dog's nostrils for the bacteria. It matched the MRSA collected from the couple's nostrils and their wounds (the husband, who was diabetic, had an infected leg stump after a below-the-knee amputation for a non-healing wound and the wife had lesions on her skin). After four months of treatment, the couple and their dog were MRSA-free. Although the couple was seriously ill throughout the ordeal, the dog was fine, according to the report.

Plague from a Pet?

After sleeping with a sick cat, a 9-year-old boy from Arizona came down with the plague, according to a 2000 report. All told, 23 cases of cat-associated human plague -- five of which were fatal -- occurred in eight states from 1977-1998, the authors reported. Seventeen cases were bubonic plague -- the cause of the "Black Death" that wiped out up to 60 percent of the European population from 1348-1420.

The plague, which was brought to the U.S. in the mid-1800s on ships from Asia, is treatable as long as it's detected early, according to Dr. William Karesh, a veterinarian and executive vice president for health and policy at EcoHealth Alliance.

Dog owners are also at a higher risk for plague, according to a 2008 study. Four out of nine plague survivors reported sleeping in the same bed with a pet dog, compared with only three of 30 age- and neighborhood-matched controls.

Meningitis

Bacteria or viral infections can lead to meningitis -- life-threatening inflammation of brain and spinal cord protective coverings.

A 2009 study detailed two cases of meningitis in newborns linked to pets. One came after a cat stole the newborn's pacifier and used it as a toy. The other was attributed to a dog licking the baby's face. Out of 38 babies who developed meningitis in their first month, 27 had been licked or sniffed by a dog, according to the study.

A 44-year-old woman got meningitis after a similar infection, according to a 2010 report. The woman reported regularly kissing her dog as well as feeding it food out of her own mouth.

Worms

In the U.S., hookworms and roundworms take top spot for dog parasites. In humans, roundworms transmitted from dog fur can cause ocular larva migrans (OLM) if they migrate to the eyes or visceral larva migrans (VLM) if they migrate to other organs. The painful conditions can lead to blindness, encephalitis, heart and lung complications and even death.

Keep Your Pet Healthy

Sleeping with pets is a comfort for many. And although pets can transmit diseases to humans, it's rare, according to Dr. Karesh.

"It's difficult to interpret this report without an idea of how many millions of people had a dog lick their ear and didn't get an infection," Karesh said.

"People who have weakened immune systems and small children certainly need to be more careful. But for the majority of people in the U.S., it's probably more dangerous to sleep in a bed than it is to sleep with your pet," Karesh said, citing data from 2004 that suggests 450 people die each year in the U.S. falling out of bed.

Nevertheless, the report serves a good reminder to keep pets healthy with vaccinations and parasite control, Karesh said.

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