To Your Health

by Pets and Your Health

By Paulette Avery, R.N., M.S.N., I.B.C.L.C.

Pets add so much to our lives. The unconditional love and affection showered on us by our pets has real health benefits. Owning a pet may lower your blood pressure as well as your cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Pet owners feel less lonely and have greater opportunities for exercise, outdoor activities, and socialization. But it is wise to remember that along with all the goodness pets offer us, there also can be potential risks to our health from exposure to disease and injury. Here's some information you should know to keep you and your family well while enjoying your pet.

Fortunately, most animal illnesses are not passed to humans. The relatively few illnesses that are transmitted to humans are called zoonoses (pronounced zoo-uh- no -seez). You can become infected by a zoonosis when you are scratched or bitten by an animal or by coming into contact with an animal's urine, feces, saliva, or dander (flakes from the skin, feathers, or hair). You can also be exposed to diseases such as Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever from ticks and fleas that may live in your pet's fur.

Two zoonoses you may have heard about are cat-scratch fever and toxoplasmosis.

Cat-scratch fever results from getting bitten or scratched by a cat or kitten infected with bacteria called Bartonella henselae. Usually, the animal shows no signs of the infection, but people may develop swollen or tender lymph nodes, fatigue, fever, and headache. Fortunately, only about a third of the people infected have any symptoms, and the disease usually disappears without treatment. In some cases, antibiotics may be prescribed. If you or a family member is scratched or bitten, wash the wound immediately with soap and running water.

Toxoplasmosis infections can occur after contact with a parasite found in cat feces or undercooked meat. The symptoms are similar to those of cat-scratch fever, with the addition of muscle pain, cough, sore throat, and a rash. This infection can be very dangerous when it affects a pregnant woman because the unborn child may develop vision problems and mental retardation. It is safest for pregnant women to avoid all contact with litter boxes.

It is rare for humans to get ill from contact with birds, but because of the risk of salmonella poisoning, it is best for children under five years old to avoid touching baby chicks and ducklings. Adults and children can also become ill from salmonella bacteria after touching reptiles or their cages, so good hand washing is important after such contact.

Here are several suggestions that will help you keep your pets and your family in good health:

? Take pets to the vet regularly for exams, and be sure their vaccinations are up-to-date.

? Make use of one of the many products available to control ticks and fleas on your pet.

? Wash hands often, and especially after touching, feeding, or cleaning up after a pet.

? Learn how to safely approach a strange dog, and teach this skill to your children to help protect them and yourself from being bitten.

With a little care, your pet will continue to be a source of love and enjoyment.?

Paulette Avery is a registered nurse and a freelance writer who specializes in health issues. She can be reached at averyfam\