Pets can win over just about anyone. From their kind eyes to their joyful smiles, pets can turn the most uptight person into a little kid in no time flat. It’s part of the reason pets make such good stress relievers and exercise partners — and at least part of the basis for pet therapy programs (here at FMH we’re thrilled to welcome Wags for Hope teams who come to visit our patients each week).
While pet therapy dogs are trained to be on their best behavior, our pets at home take their cues from their owners — so licking is often accepted as a sign of affection. I know my cat, Storm (pictured, left), loves to lick my hands when I get home from work every day and she also sleeps right next to me most nights (like 62% of cats and about half of all dogs according to data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)).
Most of us are used to being affectionate with our pets, but you might be surprised to find out that this close contact can be detrimental to your health.
A recent study published in the CDC’s Journal of Emerging Infectious Diseases suggests people who allow their pets to lick them may be at risk for zoonosis. Zoonosis, also called zoonotic diseases, refers to diseases that can be passed from animals, whether wild or domesticated, to humans.
Zoonotic diseases can be transmitted through direct contact with an infected animal or through contaminated water or insects on an infected animal. So how sick can you get? The conditions vary from mundane to life-threatening.
Among the bacterial, parasitic and viral conditions tagging along on your pets are plague, cat scratch disease and staphylococcus. In the United States, the most common parasitic zoonosis associated with dogs is caused by hook worms and roundworms. In humans, these worms can cause gastrointestinal symptoms, anemia and other conditions. Pasteurella multocida, an infection commonly caused by pet licks, can lead to everything from mild respiratory symptoms to serious conditions including endocarditis.
Even the study’s authors admit the risk of zoonotic infection is low and it’s unlikely otherwise healthy adults would suffer serious health issues. But if you have young children or family members with compromised immune systems, you may want to consider steps like washing your hands or face after you’ve been licked or even banning your furry loved one from your bed.