Don't Let Your Dog's Lick Make You Sick

We love them, we feed them, we hug them…but are we catching germs from our family pets?

February 24, 2011

Sharing the love could mean sharing your dog's germs.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—The family pet is a hugely important part of many households; in fact, pets are often treated more like beloved relatives than like domesticated animals. And having a pet in your home brings many benefits, including psychological support, companionship, stress reduction, and even good health habits (like those daily walks). Considering all those things your pet does for you, it’s natural to want to treat your animal cohabitant in a princely fashion in return. However, a recent report in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s journal Emerging Infectious Diseases points out a downside of sharing living space with a four-legged friend.


THE DETAILS: When the family pet is treated as a smaller, furrier, human, he or she is typically allowed to take up prime real estate on the bed. In fact, it’s estimated that up to 62 percent of pet owners allow their dogs and cats on their beds. But this practice comes with risks of infectious disease. A zoonose (also called a zoonosis) is an infectious disease that can be transmitted from animals to humans, and vice versa. The report delineates some types of cases of human infection via animals that have been documented; the zoonotic pathogens include C. canimorsus, Pasteurella spp., MRSA, and even plague. While it’s uncommon for this to happen with healthy pets, the risk for transmission of zoonotic agents by close contact between pets and their owners through bed sharing, kissing, or licking is real.

WHAT IT MEANS: It's likely that your family pet is more beneficial than detrimental to your household, so don't go posting an "adopt me" message on Facebook yet. But do be sure to follow some pet best practices to reduce your risk and still feel close to with your furry friend. We asked study author Bruno B. Chomel, MD, professor at the School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California–Davis, for tips on staying safe. Here’s his expert advice:

• Be a responsible pet owner. “First, keep your pet healthy: Schedule proper vaccinations, veterinary checkups, routine deworming, and regular use of a preventive against ectoparasites, mainly fleas," Dr. Chomel says.

• Wash up. Frequent hand washing is a good habit to get into if there's a critter living under your roof. Make sure the whole family knows to wash hands, face, and other body parts after being licked by the family pet, and after any extended physical contact.

• Watch the kids. Anyone whose immune system may not be up to snuff—young children, old folks, people who are ill or otherwise immunocompromized—shouldn't sleep with a pet, or have that kind of extended close contact.

• Reserve the bed for humans. Not everyone's willing to give in on this point. But the healthiest option is to let family pets, and their germs, sleep in their own beds. "It’s preferable to give pets their own sleeping area, even if they’re sleeping in the same room with you,” says Dr. Chomel.