Pets and the immunocompromised person
AIDS patients and pets; Bone marrow transplant patients and pets; Chemotherapy patients and pets
Persons with weakened immune systems are often advised to give up their pets to avoid getting various diseases from the animals. Persons in this category include those who take high doses of steroids and others who have:
- Had an organ transplant
- Had their spleen removed
- Kidney failure
However, many patients decide to keep their pets. Therefore, the patient and their family must be aware of the potential risk for diseases that can be passed from animals to humans.
Here are some guidelines:
- Ask your veterinarian for information on infections that you might get from your pets.
- Keep your pet clean and healthy. Make sure that all vaccinations are up to date. If you own a cat, have it tested for the feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency viruses. Although these viruses do not spread to humans, they do affect the cat's immune system, putting you and your cat at risk for other infections that may be spread to humans.
- Have your veterinarian examine all your pets. If you are considering adopting one, you should get a pet that is more than 1 year old. Kittens and puppies are more likely to scratch and bite and are more likely to contract infections.
- Keep your pets indoors. If they do go outside, keep them on a leash.
- Have all pets surgically spayed or neutered. Neutered animals are less likely to roam and therefore less likely to contract diseases.
- Bring your pet to a veterinarian if the animal has diarrhea, is coughing and sneezing, has decreased appetite, or has lost weight.
- Feed your pet only commercially prepared food and treats. Animals can get sick from undercooked or raw meat or eggs. Cats can get infections, such as toxoplasmosis, by eating wild animals.
- Do not let your pet drink from the toilet. Several infections can be spread this way.
- Wash your hands after handling your pet or a litter box, especially before you eat, prepare food, take medications, or smoke.
- Keep your cat's litter box away from eating areas. Use disposable pan liners so that the entire pan can be cleaned with each litter change. If possible, have someone else change the litter pan. If you must change the litter, wear rubber gloves and a disposable face mask. The litter should be scooped daily to prevent the risk of toxoplasmosis infection. Similar precautions should be taken when cleaning a bird's cage.
- Keep your pet's nails short, or declaw the animal to reduce the risk of infection caused by animal scratches. Cats can spread Bartonella henselae, the organism responsible for cat scratch disease.
- Take measures to prevent flea or tick infestations, as several bacterial and viral infections are spread by fleas and ticks. Dogs and cats can use flea collars. Permethrin-treated bedding can decrease risk of flea and tick infestations.
- Do not adopt wild or exotic animals. These animals are more likely to bite, and they often carry rare but serious diseases.
- Dogs can spread "kennel cough" to persons with weakened immune systems. If possible, do not place your dog in a boarding kennel or other high risk environment.
- Reptiles carry a type of bacteria called salmonella. If you own a reptile, wear gloves when handling the animal or its feces because salmonella is easily passed from animal to human.
- Wear rubber gloves when handling or cleaning fish tanks.
For more information on pet-related infections, contact your local veterinarian or the Humane Society in your area.
David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc., and David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine.
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