What to know about pets and your health

Dr. Susan Hirsch, 54, is pictured with her

Dr. Susan Hirsch, 54, is pictured with her 4 year old golden retriever "Scoop" at her home in Port Washington. (Nov. 7, 2013) (Credit: Daniel Brennan)

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Researchers have confirmed what dog and cat owners already know: Those critters are good for you.

But like so many things, the good parts of having a pet come with possible bad aspects, too, as pets also have the potential to harm your health. Here are some pros and cons.


1. Having a pet could help you live longer.


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Recent studies have linked pet ownership to healthier bodies, and longer life and less depression after heart attacks. Dog owners who walked their pooches are also more likely to get recommended levels of exercise.

"That's a big benefit, as many people who would otherwise be on the couch are out and walking instead," said Dr. Susan Hirsch, an internal medicine physician with North Shore-LIJ Health System who's based in Great Neck.

"Additionally, studies have shown lower blood pressure in people with pets. Veterans with post-traumatic stress have used dogs for anxiety and stress reduction. Pets are now being used to sense when someone is about to have a seizure or a diabetic coma."

Studies, however, typically don't prove a direct cause-and-effect link between pet ownership and health. Instead, they only reveal a potential connection. It's possible that people who get pets are naturally more active and less depressed.


2. Pets could catch your flu.

Pets-to-people transmission of disease-causing germs is considered highly unlikely. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there's been no recorded case of a person being infected with the canine flu virus, for instance, nor any evidence that the virus would cause an infection in humans.

It might be possible for pets to catch the flu from people, however. Researchers looking into this say that some pets may have been infected with the Avian flu and the H1N1 flu viruses in recent years, and they suggest that, as a precaution, people who are sick distance themselves from their pets.

As for kennel cough, most health experts say that the respiratory disease, similar to bronchitis in humans, cannot be transmitted to people. However, a recent study in the Journal of Cystic Fibrosis reported on four young children with weakened immune systems from cystic fibrosis who became infected with the kennel cough germ, and a study a decade ago in Pediatric Transplantation reported on two adolescents who'd had lung transplants and subsequently were believed to have contracted respiratory infections from dogs that had kennel cough.


3. Fleas and ticks can both spell disease.

Anyone who's ever had a furry pet most likely knows about the risk of fleas and ticks. Both are threats on Long Island, but they carry different levels of risk.

"Flea bites are mostly a nuisance because they do not spread disease on their own," said Dr. Jeffrey Ellis, a dermatologist in Plainview who's also director of dermatology for New York Hospital Queens in Flushing. "However, it is possible to develop a bacterial infection of the skin anywhere that it is compromised, either from the bite itself or from the scratching."

What to do? Treat the pet and kill the fleas, he said. "Temporary relief can be obtained from a topical cortisone cream."

The danger of ticks comes from their ability to spread a variety of diseases, including Lyme. Check pets for ticks after walking in the woods, and take action if one attaches itself to you.

"Remove the tick as soon as possible, and call your doctor right away," Ellis said. "If you are able to see your doctor promptly, they may be able to remove the tick and send it for testing. If there is a high risk of Lyme disease transmission, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic."

Ellis recommends using a DEET-based insect repellent to keep fleas and ticks away. If you're concerned about getting it on your skin, he said, apply it to your shoes, your socks and the brim of your hat.


4. The litter box can menace your health.

Cleaning a cat's litter box may be more than an unpleasant chore. Hirsch said that exposure to cat feces can make people vulnerable to a disease called toxoplasmosis, which could cause brain damage in a growing fetus. "About 30 percent of pregnant women are exposed without any consequences," she said, but "to be safe, we ask that pregnant women don't change the litter box or, if they have no choice, to wear gloves."

Toxoplasmosis is also a potential risk for people with weakened immune systems, such as those with AIDS, because it can contribute to brain infections, Hirsch said.


5. Pet bites pose hazards beyond pain.

If you're wondering what's worse, a dog bite or a cat bite, the answer may surprise you.

"Cats have needlelike teeth which penetrate deeper into the skin, while dog bites tend to be more superficial and bruising, making them somewhat easier to manage," Hirsch said.

Bites and scratches from cats and contact with their saliva can spread a germ called Bartonella that causes cat-scratch disease, a flu-like illness. The disease typically goes away on its own, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Bites from both dogs and cats can also spread Pasteurella bacteria, which cause a skin infection called cellulitis.


6. Pet allergies can be serious.

"Pet allergies can be handled with medications, such as Claritin or Allegra, but in some cases the risk is not worth the benefit" of pet ownership, Hirsch said. "For example, if someone has a bad allergy to cats and it causes wheezing and asthma exacerbations, the person could end up in the hospital, or on dangerous medications, such as steroids, and the risk to their health would be major."

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