A Global Infection Monitoring System for House Pets?

Larry Hand

November 16, 2012

In addition to the global monitoring of emerging infectious diseases that is conducted for humans and livestock, a single global monitoring system is needed for common house pets such as dogs and cats, according to an article published online November 14 and in the December issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases.

In addition, "great variation" exists among US states' regulations regarding the prohibition of reptiles and amphibians from child care centers, even though children could be at risk of contracting Salmonella infections from those pets, according to a letter to the editor published in the same issue of the journal.

Dogs and Cats

Michael J. Day, PhD, DSc, a professor at the School of Veterinary Sciences, University of Bristol, United Kingdom, and colleagues conducted a review to analyze existing surveillance systems for companion animals and recommend establishing a coordinated global system. The researchers are all members of the One Health Committee, which was recently formed by the World Small Animal Veterinary Association to promote better integration of human and veterinary medicine, particularly in infectious disease control and in translational and comparative research.

"The establishment of an effective global companion animal infectious disease surveillance network presents a major political, financial, and scientific challenge," the researchers write. Obstacles to overcome include developing a process to educate veterinarians and their staffs, developing methods to disseminate information to authorities and public health officials, and determining who should lead the project and how it should be funded, they write.

The researchers cite estimates of the populations of these household pets as 72 million dogs in 37% of households and 81 million cats in 32% of households in the United States, as well as between 8 and 10 million dogs in between 22% and 31% of households and between 8 and 10 million cats in between 18% and 26% of households in the United Kingdom.. Dogs, particularly, also play "a major working and companionship role in many developing cultures," in which the risk for infection is compounded by generally poor or no veterinary care, the researchers write.

Although a number of infectious diseases are shared among humans, dogs, and cats, 2 pet zoonoses — rabies and zoonotic visceral leishmaniasis — "exert a substantial effect globally on human health," the authors write. Domesticated dogs are the primary reservoir for these life-threatening human infections.

In addition, recent influenza outbreaks may indicate that cats are more frequently infected with influenza than previously thought.

Surveillance for diseases such as these varies around the world, ranging from "statutory notifiable disease reporting to public access data mining," the researchers write. No systems are required to coordinate surveillance.

Surveillance systems include:

  • The Global Public Health Intelligence Network, Public Health Agency of Canada, which covers infectious diseases and chemical exposures. This network feeds into the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network and the Global Early Warning and Response System, which offers a network of organizations that can provide resources and expertise.

  • Pro-Med Mail, from the International Society for Infectious Diseases, which is a similar program to the Global Public Health Intelligence Network.

  • The World Animal Health Information Database, from the World Organisation for Animal Health, which compiles zoonotic human infections from member countries.

  • The Emerging Infections Program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at which some programs are relevant to companion animal surveillance.

"Information about known and potential zoonoses associated with cats and dogs is emerging rapidly and needs to be more efficiently disseminated," the researchers write. "Given the close proximity to humans and the role of companion animals as a source of zoonoses, the absence of these species from international agendas for One Health represents a gap that requires urgent attention."

The authors recommend:

  • defining current and potential infectious diseases using internationally standardized nomenclature;

  • capturing field data around the world, possibly through a computer-based or mobile telephone–based system;

  • disseminating the data to authorities and public health officials; and

  • determining who operates and funds the system.

The researchers conclude, "These are not simple questions, but the first stage in this process is recognition of the problem by those in authority and the brokering of discussions between interested parties. We hope that this report might define historical and evolving facts and thereby prompt such discussions in the near future."

Reptiles and Amphibians

In the letter, Neil M. Vora, MD, from Columbia University in New York City, and colleagues reviewed all US states' regulations as of December 2011 that pertain to prevention of reptile- and amphibian-associated salmonellosis. They searched state Web sites, contacted state agencies, and corresponded with state public health veterinarians and found that:

  • half of the states required staff and children to wash hands after touching animals in child care centers;

  • 12 states banned reptiles from child care centers;

  • 3 of those 12 states also banned amphibians;

  • of 23 states that banned "potentially dangerous/harmful animals" from child care centers, 8 states specified reptiles; and

  • only Colorado specifically banned reptiles and amphibians along with other potentially dangerous animals.

Limitations of the study include ambiguity in some regulation language that could have led to misinterpretation, the researchers write.

Of almost 1.4 million human cases and 600 associated deaths of salmonella each year, reptiles and amphibians may be associated with more than 70,000 of the cases, Dr. Vora and colleagues write, and children are at heightened risk. "Given the increasing popularity of reptiles and amphibians as pets, reptile- and amphibian-associated salmonellosis is a substantial public health concern," they add.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that children younger than 5 years avoid reptile and amphibian contact, that these pets not be allowed in child care centers, and that any person handling them wash their hands afterward.

"The discrepancy in the regulations of states that banned potentially dangerous or harmful animals from childcare centers but that did not also specifically ban reptiles and amphibians was paradoxical, considering the well-recognized risk that these animals pose for transmitting Salmonella spp," Dr. Vora and colleagues write.

"[O]ur data suggest that there is room for revision of the regulations in many states which could in turn augment efforts to prevent Salmonella spp. transmission from reptiles and amphibians," they conclude.

They recommend using the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommendations as a model and that state agencies work with the pet industry and child care centers to develop mutually beneficial proposals.

The article authors are members of the World Small Animal Veterinarians Association, which receives support from the World Small Animal Veterinarians Association Foundation. The letter was supported by the Mars Foundation and New York Community Trust.

Emerg Infect Dis. Published online November 14, 2012. Article full text