Wholly Healthy: ‘Pawed’ Friend May Affect Health

By way of full confession, my family has five dogs. All of them are mixed breed critters who have already outlived their warranties, but they keep living happy dog lives. We also have two large cats who are vocal and social at mealtime, but otherwise generally prefer not to be touched.

The point being: We love our animals. When you live in the woods and accumulate children, you’ll undoubtedly gather pets as well; it goes with the turf. The dogs have always lived outside; the cats were banished many years ago. And they’re thriving.

Which leads me to my point. Animals are a deeply ingrained part of human culture. But animals can impact our health and, as such, we need to be cautious. A great example is a disease called toxoplasmosis. This is a parasite carried by dogs and cats. It is also a parasite that can be transmitted to humans, and can cause eye and brain damage to both adults and unborn children. Pregnant women are advised never to change the cat litter or do anything that might put them in contact with cat feces.

While the potential health problems of many different pets would take up far more space than this column allows, it is dogs and cats that seem most likely to inhabit our homes. And the truth is, they carry numerous diseases that can be transmitted to humans, including rabies, various intestinal parasites, skin infections like scabies and staph, as well as other aggressive bacteria that can be dangerous if they get into open wounds. (In other words, no, don’t let the dog lick your wounds!)

These diseases are particularly problematic when a person has a poor immune system, as one might have with HIV infection, immunosuppressive drugs (such as those for rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis or psoriasis) or cancer chemotherapy.

It isn’t that we have to banish beasts from our lives, but we need to be very conscious of the fact that, like all living things, they have the potential to carry and transmit infectious diseases. In some instances, they can transmit the diseases to their owners.

Animals can also cause other problems. First, they can cause falls! In particular, senior citizens with poor balance and limited strength can trip over pets, or be knocked (or dragged) down by enthusiastic dogs in the home or on walks. They mean well, but a fall is a fall. Furthermore, some dogs (and the occasional insane cat) can attack owners or visitors, causing grave injuries and further opportunities for infection.

I know, I know! Pets are a comfort and a joy. Pets calm our nerves, give people purpose and ease their loneliness. But it’s imperative that people who keep them make sure that their pets are clean, well-tempered and disease-free. Equally important, they should make sure their animals are appropriate for their owners in terms of size, intensity of care, and energy level.

Pets are important. But you, dear reader, are more important. So keep that in mind when choosing and caring for your pets.