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Household pets can transmit infections to people, especially those with weak immune systems

OTTAWA, April 20, 2015 – Household pets can transmit infection to people, especially people with weak immune systems, young children, pregnant women and seniors, according to an article in CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal). Health care providers and pet owners should be aware of this to prevent illness in vulnerable people.

“Surveys suggest that the general public and people at high risk for pet-associated disease are not aware of the risks associated with pet contact or recommendations to reduce them; for example, 77% of households that obtained a new pet following a cancer diagnosis acquired a high-risk pet, such as young dog or cat, rodent, reptile, or amphibian,” states Dr. Jason Stull, assistant professor, Department of Veterinary Preventive Medicine, Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio.

The review explains how infections are transmitted from pets, the types of infections, prevention and the role of health care providers.

“Studies suggest physicians do not regularly ask about pet contact, nor do they discuss the risks of zoonotic diseases with patients, regardless of the patient’s immune status,” writes Dr. Jason Brophy, clinical investigator at the Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) and assistant professor, Faculty of Medicine, University of Ottawa.

All pets can transmit diseases to people. For instance, dogs, cats, rodents, reptiles and amphibians can transmit diseases such as Salmonella, multi-drug resistant  bacteria, Clostridium difficile, Campylobacter jejuni, and other diseases. Parasites such as hookworm, roundworm and Toxoplasma can also be transmitted. Infection can be contracted from bites, scratches, saliva and contact with feces. Reptiles and amphibians can transmit disease indirectly, such as via contaminated surfaces.

“Reptiles and amphibians are estimated to be responsible for 11% of all sporadic Salmonella infections among patients less than 21 years of age, and direct contact with such animals is not required for zoonotic transmission,” write the authors. “In one study, 31% of reptile-associated salmonellosis cases occurred in children less than 5 years of age and 17% occurred in children aged 1 year or younger; these findings
highlight the heightened risk in children and the potential for reptile-associated Salmonella to be transmitted without direct contact with the animal or its enclosure.” 

For healthy people, the risk of pet-associated disease is low but vulnerable people are at risk, including children with leukemia and adults with cancer, newborns and others.

“Given the health benefits of animal ownership and the reluctance of patients to give up their pets, resources highlight the importance of following specific precautions,” states Dr. Jason Stull. “Patients at high risk and their households should have increased vigilance of their pets’ health and take precautions to reduce pathogen transmission.”

Simple steps can dramatically reduce the disease risks from pets. Recommendations for reducing infection transmission include:

- Wearing protective gloves to clean aquariums and cages and remove feces
- Proper handwashing after pet contact
- Discouraging face licking of immunocompromised children and adults
- Covering playground boxes when not in use 
- Avoiding contact with exotic pets and non-human primates
- Regular cleaning and disinfection of animal cages, feeding areas and bedding
- Locating litter boxes away from kitchen and areas where eating and food preparation occur
Waiting to acquire a new pet until immune status has improved
- Regular veterinary visits for all pets

Physicians and other health care providers should enquire about pets and repeat questions in light of illness in vulnerable people as well as seek advice on the risks of pet ownership and how to reduce risks of disease. 

The authors also recommend that veterinarians can be a resource for physicians seeking more information on zoonotic infections and unusual pets and associated diseases.

Media inquiries: 

Adrienne Vienneau
CHEO Research Institute
Office: 613-737-7600 x4144
Cell: 613-513-8437

Kina Leclair (French requests)

University of Ottawa
Office: 613-562-5800 x2529
Cell: 613-762-2908
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