Q: After news reports earlier this year, we’re wondering: Is it unhealthy or unsanitary to allow dogs or cats to share our beds?
A: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study that triggered concerns and news-media coverage, estimates of how many pets sleep with people range between 14 and 62 percent. If your house is among those, then the greatest concern is zoonotics — diseases or infections that can be transmitted from animals to humans.
After examining numerous cases from around the world, the CDC reported that zoonotic infections acquired by sleeping with a pet were not common. But people with immune systems compromised by disease or medications are at greater risk, as may be children, pregnant women and the elderly. An assortment of zoonotic agents can be transmitted by kissing a pet or being licked by a pet.
The CDC cited some scary incidents, including these: After a 1974 outbreak of bubonic plague in New Mexico, one patient noticed flea bites the morning after he slept with his flea-infested cat. Among other plague cases related to cat exposure, a 9-year-old Arizona boy had handled and slept with a sick cat.
More recently, in 2008, investigators concluded that some plague cases were likely linked to humans sleeping with pet dogs that may have carried infected fleas into homes.
Dogs, unlike cats, rarely show clinical signs of infection that could serve as a warning. In the United States, the most common parasites spread from dogs to humans are hookworm and roundworm.
We recommend all cats and dogs be placed on both heartworm and flea prevention medications year-round. Heartworm medications also prevent other internal parasites in both dogs and cats. Even indoor cats are susceptible to internal parasites and heartworm disease, since mosquitoes (which transmit heartworm) can get indoors and bite cats and people. Also, cats love to catch and eat crickets and roaches, which can transmit intestinal parasites. A monthly pill or application of Revolution for your cat is a worthwhile preventative. There’s a misconception that topical flea preventatives are toxic to both animals and people. I feel these products are safer and more effective than older alternatives like house foggers, sprays and dips, which were much more toxic to pets, humans and the environment.
The CDC discouraged young children or immune-compromised adults from sleeping with or regularly kissing their pets. Any area licked by a pet — especially open wounds — should be immediately washed with soap and water. Pets should be kept free of external parasites (especially fleas), routinely de-wormed, and regularly examined by a veterinarian. After cleaning your cat’s litter box or picking up after your dog, wash your hands thoroughly.
All risk can’t be eliminated. But keeping your pets clean and healthy, and observing simple precautions such as washing hands regularly after contact with pets (and especially with pets’ tongues) greatly reduces the chance of picking up diseases or infections from your pets, even if they sleep with you.
David Tayman, D.V.M., has practiced veterinary medicine in Howard County since 1974. E-mail questions to Dr. Tayman at David.Tayman@vcahospitals.com.