Many pet owners were not too happy with the release of a manuscript by veterinarians Bruno B. Chomel and Ben Sun in the February 2011 issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases from the Centers for Disease Control. Their article “Zoonoses in the Bedroom” discussed the fact that sleeping with pets has the potential for serious health risks.
As our pets become more integrated into family life, they increasingly tend to share our lifestyles – including our beds! Surveys have estimated that up to 62% of owners allow their pets on their beds. Despite the fact that pet ownership brings us many benefits, including emotional support and stress reduction, we should not forget that our furry friends also bring along a whole host of their own “friends” in addition. Namely in the form of a wide range of zoonotic pathogens – bacteria, viruses, and parasites.
The authors searched PubMed for peer-reviewed publications that clearly detailed human exposure to zoonotic disease in association with sharing a bed or sleeping with pets, and kissing or being licked by them. A selection of their findings included:
- Numerous cases of plaque in Arizona and New Mexico, from 1974 to 2008, in people who reported sleeping with or handling sick or flea-infested cats or dogs.
- Septicemia and multi-organ failure in a 48 year old woman in Australia. Her fox terrier pup had been licking a minor burn wound on her foot.
- A 48 year old man with diabetes mellitus, and his wife, suffered recurrent MRSA infections. The couple regularly slept with their dog, and allowed him to lick their faces. Culture of nares samples from both people and their dog, as well as from a wound on the wife, grew an identical strain of MRSA.
- Paranasal sinusitis in a 39 year old woman from Japan with rhinorrhea and headaches. Her cat would awaken her each day by licking her. Identical Pasteurella multocida isolates were grown from the patient’s nasal discharge and the cat’s saliva.
- Another from Japan, and one of my favorites: Meningitis due to Pasteurella multocida in a 44 year old woman from Japan who admitted to regularly kissing her dog, as well as feeding it by transferring food mouth to mouth.
Whilst zoonotic disease transmission is uncommon with healthy pets, these cases clearly document that close contact between pets and owners presents a real risk when it comes to spread of infection. And this is especially worrying when we consider potentially fatal diseases such as plague.
Many people will likely not refrain from smooching their pets. Nevertheless, children, the elderly, and patients who are immunocompromised should at least be discouraged from kissing their pets or sharing a bed with them. And areas of skin, especially in the case of open wounds, that are licked by pets should be immediately washed. Bacterial infections with no obvious origin, or recurrent MRSA infections in patients, should also be cues for physicians to ask questions about contact with pets.