Pets may be spreading Salmonella, other diseases

Posted at 1:11 PM, Apr 22, 2015
and last updated 2015-04-22 15:29:51-04

Your pet may be spreading Salmonella, E. Coli and roundworms to you.

That’s the warning scientists issued this week in a review of 500 studies published Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. Those common diseases are spread through feces, saliva and shedding from dogs, cats, reptiles and other animals.

And they aren’t the only ones pets are capable of passing along. Pets can also become sick from human-dwelling bacteria and then spread it to other humans, according to studies that tracked antibiotic-resistant strains.

The most at-risk people have weakened immune systems, according to the report. That includes young children, the elderly, pregnant women and the immunosuppressed.

Doctors, vets and pet-owners need to work together to make sure the benefits of a given pet outweigh the risks for their home situation, said Ohio State veterinarian and study author Jason Stull.

"Pets do so much good for people in terms of mental, physical, and emotional health. But at the same time, they can transmit diseases to us,” he said.

Because pet species are so diverse — one man’s vermin is another’s pet mouse — Stull advises families to consult with their doctor and veterinarian.

"It's all about safe pet ownership," Stull said. "There are very few situations in which a person couldn't or shouldn't have some type of pet if they wish. It's about matching the right species with the right person and taking the appropriate precautions."

For example, reptiles and amphibians harbor salmonella bacteria in their digestive tract. That might not pose a problem for most people as long as they wash their hands after playing with a pet turtle. But it could cause serious illness for someone undergoing chemotherapy treatments. 

Sometimes parents will get a puppy to cheer up a sick child. A better choice might be an adult animal because the dogs younger than six months carry additional disease risk.

Vets and doctors need to communicate more about the health risks of certain pets, especially when a patient’s immune system becomes compromised, Stull said.

"Surveys suggest that most veterinarians and physicians do not regularly discuss zoonotic disease risks with clients, patients or each other," Stull said. "That needs to change if we are going to effectively reduce pet-associated diseases."

Recommendations for healthy pet ownership include:

  • Wear protective gloves to clean aquariums and cages

  • Wash your hands after pet contact

  • Discouraging pets from face licking

  • Cover playground boxes when not in use

  • Avoid contact with higher risk animals such as reptiles, amphibians, and exotic animals

  • Regularly clean and disinfect animal cages, feeding areas and bedding

  • Keep litter boxes away from areas where eating and food prep occur

  • Wait to acquire a new pet until immune status has improved

  • Regularly schedule veterinary visits for all pets.


Gavin Stern is a national digital producer for the Scripps National Desk.