Pets Can Make People Sick

Casey Barton Behravesh, MS, DVM, DrPH


August 22, 2011

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Hi. I am Dr. Casey Barton Behravesh, an epidemiologist in the Outbreak Response and Prevention Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). I am also a veterinarian with a pet dog and cat and the mother of 2 young children. Today, I am pleased to speak with you as part of the CDC Expert Video Commentary Series on Medscape. I will be talking with you about how certain pets can make people sick and the steps you can take to help protect your patients and their families.

Pet ownership has many positive benefits. They comfort us and give us companionship. But as much as I love animals, I know that some -- especially those that are frequently linked to outbreaks of human illness -- are not the best animals to choose as pets. This is especially true for certain high-risk groups of people, including children younger than 5 years or immunocompromised patients.

Salmonella is most commonly transmitted through contaminated food. However, Salmonella is also one of many zoonotic pathogens that can be spread between people and their pets. Many Salmonella infections occur in people who have contact with certain types of animals -- what I refer to as "risky" pets. These include reptiles, such as turtles, snakes, or lizards; amphibians, especially frogs; poultry, including chicks, chickens, and ducklings; and rodents, such as hamsters. Infected animals can appear happy, healthy, and clean and still be shedding Salmonella or other zoonotic pathogens that can lead to human illness. In fact, small turtles are so risky that their sale as pets has been banned since 1975.

It is important to know that directly handling these pets isn't the only way people can get sick; the environments where the animals live and roam, such as water from a frog or turtle tank, can be just as contaminated as the animal itself. In several recent outbreaks of human Salmonella infections linked to water frogs, turtles, and chicks, most of the infected patients or the parents of infected children said they didn't even know that these animals could cause Salmonella infections.

So what can you do? As a healthcare provider, you can help prevent the spread of Salmonella or other zoonotic infections by asking high-risk patients and parents about contact with animals, both in the home and away from home, in public places such as fairs, schools, and petting zoos. You should educate your patients about the risks of Salmonella and other zoonotic infections from animals. You can share prevention recommendations, such as advising patients that some pets are not appropriate for children younger than 5 years old or other high-risk patients. Also, you can remind all patients that they can take simple precautions to reduce their risk for a zoonotic infection including using good handwashing practices. This includes washing hands thoroughly after handling animals or anything in the animal's environment.

Know the symptoms of Salmonella infection and test patients when appropriate. Salmonella infections most commonly cause acute gastroenteritis with fever, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, vomiting, and often bloody stools. The incubation period is 12-72 hours and the illness duration is typically from 4-7 days. Most Salmonella infections do not require treatment other than oral rehydration, although patients with severe diarrhea may require rehydration with intravenous fluids. Antimicrobial therapy is not usually indicated unless you suspect that the patient has invasive disease. Serious illnesses that can result from a Salmonella infection include sepsis, joint infections, and meningitis, and infections can result in death, especially in patients with underlying health conditions (HIV infection, other immunocompromising conditions, and sickle cell anemia).

For more information, please see the resources on this page. As a healthcare provider, you can help ensure that your patients are able to enjoy their pets without getting sick!

Thank you.

Web Resources

CDC -- Salmonella

CDC -- Healthy Pets Healthy People

CDC -- Clean Hands Save Lives

CDC -- Patient Flyer: After you touch the duckling or chicks, wash your hands so you don't get sick.
(Spanish version)

Casey Barton Behravesh, MS, DVM, DrPH , is the Team Lead for the Outbreak Response Team in the Outbreak Response and Prevention Branch, Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases, National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). She is a Lieutenant Commander in the US Public Health Service. During her 5 years with the CDC, Dr. Barton Behravesh focused her efforts on investigating outbreaks of human illnesses caused by enteric pathogens, including Salmonella and Escherichia coli O157:H7, due to foodborne, waterborne, and animal contact. These multistate foodborne and zoonotic outbreaks include E coli O157:H7 infections linked to petting zoos and contaminated meat products as well as human Salmonella infections linked to dry pet food, small turtles, chicks and ducklings, a variety of produce items, and contaminated peanut butter and peanut-containing products. She also served as the CDC consultant to the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians Compendium of Measures to Prevent Diseases Associated With Animals in Public Settings since 2007. Dr. Barton Behravesh has a Master of Science degree in Veterinary Parasitology. She received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from Texas A&M University and a Doctor of Public Health degree from the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston School of Public Health, both in 2005. She was an Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) Officer from 2006-2008 with the Enteric Diseases Epidemiology Branch at the CDC. She is board certified in the American College of Veterinary Preventive Medicine.


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