(CNN) — Pets give us companionship and affection, but they can also give us diseases. Although it is rare to get sick from our furry and feathered friends, some outbreaks seem to crop up perennially.
Since January of last year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported at least 20 people across the United States came down with salmonella infections linked to contact with crested geckos bought at pet stores. Three people were hospitalized.
This outbreak is the most recent in a string of salmonella infections associated with pet reptiles. In 2012, people reportedly got salmonella from pet bearded dragons; in 2013, 26 people were infected with the bacterium from their companion hedgehog.
Just about every type of pet can spread disease, not just reptiles and rare pets. Some infections are household names, such as worms, whereas others, like “parrot fever,” are more exotic. The small risks are usually outweighed by the health benefits of living with a pet.
“There are so many positive qualities of spending time with animals but you need to minimize the risk,” said Dr. Peter Rabinowitz, associate professor of environmental and occupational health sciences and global health at the University of Washington. Keeping your pet healthy, by proper hygiene and following your vet’s recommendations, can help keep your family healthy, he said.
What is it about reptiles and salmonella? “[The bacteria] like to live on them,” Rabinowitz said. “Many of them just have salmonella on them all the time, and they don’t get sick from it,” he added. But people can. About 70,000 people get salmonella infections, typically including fever and diarrhea, from reptiles every year in the United States. Most recover within four to seven days, although some infections require hospitalization.
In 1975, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the sale of small turtles with shells less than 4 inches long. As a 2014 FDA report explained, children like to put small turtles in their mouths. “Young children find very creative ways to infect themselves,” said Vic L. Boddie II, Ph.D., a consumer safety officer in the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine.
The CDC recommends that children under age 5 and people with weak immune systems don’t have reptiles as pets. It also recommends a number of steps to reduce the risk of getting salmonella, including washing hands after handling reptiles and keeping them out of areas where food is prepared. “You can go a long way with hand washing with soap and water,” Rabinowitz said.
“We’ve lived with dogs and cats, especially dogs, for a long time, so we are sort of adapted to illnesses we could get from them,” Rabinowitz said. Nevertheless they do sometimes make their owners sick.
Roundworm is one of the most common diseases that we get from dogs. People can pick up the parasite by accidentally swallowing dirt that contains dog waste. Children playing in backyards are especially likely to be infected.
Although most of the time infections do not cause symptoms, they sometimes turn serious. Every year there are about 10,000 cases of roundworm spreading through the body and causing fever and fatigue, and about 700 cases of roundworm spreading to the eyes, where it can cause blindness.
The most important thing people can do is follow their veterinarian’s deworming schedule, said Douglas Aspros, former president of the American Veterinary Medical Association. “Every dog is born with roundworm, even if their mother was dewormed,” he said. The parasite can also cause problems for the dog, including vomiting and lethargy.
The CDC also reported that four people in Colorado contracted plague from a dog in April. The only other known case of a person getting infected with plague from a dog was in China in 2009.
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