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10 Ways Your Pet Could Be Making You Sick

All those hugs, snuggles, and kisses with your puppy or kitty are great, but could they be opening you up to sickness? Here's what vets want you to know to stay healthy.

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How pets can affect your health

Pet owners know that animal friends can enrich life, offering us company, stress relief, and encouragement to stay active and engaged. “There are many aspects of mental health, social health, and well-being which pets promote for humans,” says veterinarian Satesh Bidaisee, DVM, EdD, a professor of public health and preventive medicine at St. George’s University. “Having pets and petting animals has been proven to reduce blood pressure, provide social stimulus, and reduce depression, especially in the elderly. There’s a lot of value in pet ownership.” Still, there are a few precautions you should take to protect your health, and risks you should be aware of.

10 Ways Your Pet Could Be Making You SickLuna Vandoorne/Shutterstock

Pet hair and dandruff

The most common health issue is irritation from your pet’s hair or dandruff, says Dr. Bidaisee. Some people know that they are vulnerable and take precautions by using hypoallergenic shampoos on their animals. If you’re looking for a hypoallergenic dog, the American Kennel Club points out that there are dozens of breeds that are safe for people with allergies; some examples are the bichon frise and American hairless terrier. Speaking of which, read up on these 26 secrets your pet’s groomer won’t tell you.

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Parasites

Animals can host a variety of parasites, and they can pass them on to you. Examples include hookworms and roundworms. Washing your hands, and making sure children wash theirs, after touching your pet is one of the best ways to avoid transmission, WebMd notes. Certain pets pose more of a health risk in this department than others. “Puppies can serve as a reservoir for some parasites,” Dr. Bidaisee says, and they can pass them to people—the condition is known as toxocariasis. Know the 12 mistakes cat owners should never make.

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Pregnancy complications

Whatever affects Mom will affect the child she carries. If a pregnant woman happens to catch a bacterial infection from a pet, she could transfer it to the fetus. Dr. Bidaisee informs Reader’s Digest that these infections could interfere with the development of the child. Find out why your pet’s food bowl could be making you sick.

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Skin infections

Letting a pet lick your wound is asking for trouble, warns Dr. Bidaisee. “These animals came from the wolves,” he says of dogs in particular. Bacterial organisms that have adapted to your pets’ bodily environment may not cause them harm, but they could make you very sick. “Sometimes dogs will lick open wounds. There’s a likelihood of infection setting into the human because it’s an instance where humans are exposed to a particular strain of organisms which have survived in a harsh environment, and that can lead to potential risk.” Read about the scary reason you shouldn’t let your dog lick your face, either.

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Bacteria and fungi

Harmful bacteria and fungi can pass from animals to humans, says Dr. Bidaisee. Ringworm—caused by a fungus—and leptospirosisa bacterial disease—are just two examples of infections that your animals can pass to you. Ringworm will cause raised circular rashes that itch; Leptospira bacteria are transferred through urine and can cause fevers, chills, headaches, and vomiting, and even lead to kidney and liver damage, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. Find out the 8 reasons you should never let your cat sleep with you.

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Bird flu

Outbreaks of bird flu make the news, but if you’re keeping a bird as a pet in your house, you don’t have much to worry about, says Dr. Bidaisee. The disease spreads in chicken farms and under unsanitary conditions, but a lone pet is unlikely to pose a threat. However, “once you’ve trapped a wild bird,” Dr. Bidaisee says, “when you put them in a cage and change their environment, you stress them out. That is when the [harmful] organisms proliferate and become problematic for humans.” Check out the 50 things your pet really wants you to know.

Funny cute little piglets at an animal farmAngyalosi Beata/Shutterstock

Swine flu

Like birds, pigs have also been a source of a major flu epidemic—though keeping a small pig in your home won’t pose much of a threat. Sickness is more of an issue when multiple pigs are kept in the same space. “The source of pig [influenza] is more a result of large-scale pig farming and production,” Dr. Bidaisee explains. “You need multiple pigs for the virus to jump from one animal to the next, and in doing so the virus code changes. As the code changes, that increases its virulence for humans.”

Snake in the houseTacopolaco/Shutterstock

Salmonella

Reptiles, amphibians, and the bacteria salmonella are unfortunately linked, warns Dr. Bidaisee. Healthy lizards, turtles, snakes, and other reptiles can carry the bug—which causes stomach distress, vomiting, diarrhea, and even fevers. The CDC suggests keeping these kinds of pets far away from the kitchen and dining table. Children under age five should also be kept away from reptiles.

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Lyme disease

This tick-borne bacteria is always an issue when you’re camping or hiking; you’re at elevated risk if you have a pet that goes outdoors. Dogs can contract Lyme themselves unless you treat them with a barrier medication like Frontline. Even if a tick doesn’t dig into your pet’s skin, it can still drop from the animal’s coat and crawl onto your leg. Whenever your pet spends extended time in nature, thoroughly inspect the coat and dispose of any ticks you find. Find out how many of these 53 mistakes you’re making with your dog.

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Get your pet vaccinated

Just as vaccines keep you and your children safe, they’re also absolutely essential for pets. Not only will vaccines keep your animals healthy, but they will also protect you and any other human beings the animal comes into contact with. The rabies vaccine is especially critical because rabies is easily transferred from animals to humans. Learn how to keep your pet safe during a crisis.

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Schedule routine checkups

To be a good pet owner, you should be taking your pet to the vet once a year for a routine checkup. Just as human beings should receive a physical evaluation from their primary doctors, so should your dog or cat, or even other animals you may have around your house. Routine checkups and blood work can catch potential health trouble before it gets out of control. Check out the 11 everyday habits that put your dog in danger.

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Keep up the handwashing and good hygiene

According to Dr. Bidaisee, “Good housing, good nutrition, and proper hydration” are vital to keeping you and your pet from getting sick. “Pathogens are opportunistic,” he continues. “They look for bodies and cells that are weaker.” One of the easiest ways to maintain proper hygiene is for owners to frequently wash hands or use gloves when interacting with pet waste. Read up on which 11 foods you should never feed your pet.

Woman and her beagle dog meet morning in bedSoloviova Liudmyla/Shutterstock

“If your pets are healthy, you’re healthy”

That’s Dr. Bidaisee’s motto, at least. “Human health is inextricably linked to our environment,” he says, “and animals are part of our environment.” The most effective way to avoid contracting an illness from your pet is to keep your pet from getting sick. Pets are generally not a danger to you or your family if you take proper care of them. Learn the 10 signs your dog is actually sick.

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PS: Kisses are probably OK!

Some people let out a big “Ewww!” when they watch you receive kisses from your dog. Calm down! Unless you’re kissing your dog directly after it has eaten feces or something dead, you’re probably fine. Dr. Bidaisee remembers a man who came to a clinic once to have his dog examined. “The owner mentioned that he kisses his dog a lot and [asked] if he should be concerned about that,” he recalls. The answer? “You have a better chance of contracting something by kissing your romantic partner than your dog!” Now learn the 50 secrets your vet isn’t sharing with you.

Taylor Markarian
Taylor Markarian is a regular contributor to Reader's Digest's Culture, Advice, Travel and Pets beats. She is also a music journalist who has contributed to Alternative Press, Loudwire, Revolver, Kerrang! and more. Markarian is the author of the book, 'From the Basement: A History of Emo Music and How It Changed Society', which analyzes the evolution of punk and mental health. She holds a degree in Writing, Literature & Publishing from Emerson College.