Working in the West Island of Montreal, many of my clients have young families and with all these super bugs out there, questions often come up as to whether their pets pose any risk to their children. Interestingly, I also have many clients who are caring for their elderly parents and grandparents who may not be able to fight infections easily as their immune systems may be compromised. These concerns are not something I take lightly, however I am also not someone who believes in scare tactics.
In the following two blogs I will briefly discuss what the real risks are to you and your family and what you can do to reduce these risks. You will be surprised to see how little there is to worry about!
Part 1: Those Icky Parasites
People think I’m a little quacky – on the floor with my patients, letting them lick my hands and often my face (ok, so I avoid letting them lick my mouth!!!). These are sometimes dogs and cats I have never met, so why be so nonchalant?
The answer is this: the risk of catching something from my patients is pretty low!
If I wash my hands after each patient and am careful not to put my hands in my mouth (before washing), then I’m pretty safe. I’m much more likely to get sick when sitting in the waiting room at my children’s pediatric clinic. You’ll be hard-pressed to find your pediatrician or MD asking for a kiss when you come in for your exam, because they know we are far more likely to pass diseases on between people than between pets and people.
The true risk of parasitic zoonotic infections (an animal disease that can be transmitted to humans) associated with dogs and cats is very low in Canada. The parasites we are most concerned with are:
• Hookworms and roundworms in dogs and cats: in VERY rare circumstances these can lead to something called visceral or ocular larval migrans, especially in young children.
• Hydatid disease: (special types of tapeworms found in sheep, cattle, etc that infect humans and dogs) which is very rare in Canada.
• Baylisascaris infection: comes from raccoons and although it can infect dogs, it typically affects people who come in direct contact with raccoon latrines.
• Giardia and Cryptosporidium: are very common parasites in dogs and cats, however the likelihood of transmission to people is very low. This is partly because the majority of species of these parasites are specific to dogs and cats and do not infect people. People have their own species of these parasites that infect them and cause disease.
• Toxoplasma: this is the parasite you need to worry about if you are pregnant or if your immune system is compromised. Interestingly, people are often very worried about getting this disease from cat feces, but in fact, you are far more likely to contract the parasite by handling raw meat.
So what can we do to reduce the risk of transmission between our pets and our loved ones?
First of all, have an open conversation with your veterinarian. There is a great deal of misinformation out there and your veterinarian will be able to make recommendations based on objective and scientific information available on the regional incidence of disease and risk of transmission. This kind of individualized risk assessment is extremely important. As veterinarians, we have an obligation to keep the public safe as well as your pet healthy. We look at information such as whether your cat goes indoors or outdoors, whether your dog frequents dog parks, if you go to a cottage, are your children young, etc. We may recommend de-worming protocols that are all year round or simply for the warmer months. We may recommend having your pet’s stool analyzed, especially if you are not regularly de-worming or if your dog enjoys the occasional poo-snack!
But there are also things you can do yourself to keep these little creatures out of our pet’s and our bodies!
• Wash, wash, wash your hands, especially after outdoor activities, working in the garden or picking up after your dog.
• Wear gloves when gardening.
• Scoop and poop immediately! Keep your yard clean and don’t forget your poop bags when walking your dog.
• Encourage your dog to defecate in a specific area in your yard.
• Keep sandboxes covered when not in use.
And please, don’t forget that if your cat goes outside, he needs just as much care and preventative treatments as your dog does….