Casey Barton Behravesh, Contributor
Director of CDC’s One Health Office National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases and veterinary epidemiologist
I grew up in rural Texas surrounded by animals of all kinds: dogs, cat, rabbits, hamsters, goats, chickens, and even hermit crabs. My fondest childhood memories involve these pets – that’s a big part of why I’m a veterinarian. And because I’ve learned there are close links between animal health and human health, I signed on as a disease detective at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
This week — the 35th National Pet Week – my two young daughters and I are celebrating how pets can be a wonderful part of our lives. Whether you are a cat fancier, a dog person, a fan of rabbits, a lizard lover, or, yes, a keeper of hermit crabs, pets can be good for your health. Pets can help you be more social, and they get you outdoors for more exercise, which can help reduce blood pressure and cholesterol, as well as reduce feelings of loneliness or depression.
When thinking about adding a pet to your family, consider what is most important in your life and come up with some questions about which animal is the best fit for you. Do you have time to properly care for and clean up after the pet? What does the pet eat? What type of habitat or environment does the pet need to stay healthy? How large will the pet get and how much exercise will it need? Do you have young kids or other higher risk individuals at home? Do you or anyone in your family have a chronic illness or a weakened immune system? What is the pet’s life span and are you committed to caring for the pet for its entire life? How much will veterinary care cost?
Diseases Can Be Shared Between People and Pets
There is a right pet out there for everyone, but not all pets are right for all people. This is because some pets and other animals can carry germs that can make people sick. Certain people are at higher risk for serious illness: young children, pregnant women, people with weakened immune systems, and senior citizens. That’s why it’s important to do your research and find out which pet is best for you and your family before bringing home a new pet.
CDC recommends that households with children under the age of 5 shouldn’t have certain pets, like reptiles or amphibians (turtles, lizards, snakes, or frogs, for example) and backyard poultry. This is because these animals can carry Salmonella bacteria, which can easily make young children very sick. Even if the child doesn’t touch the pet, germs can spread throughout the house and environment from the pet’s habitat and any surfaces that the pet has touched.
Pregnant women and people who have compromised immune systems also need to be especially careful when bringing new animals into the house. Cats play an important role in the spread of toxoplasmosis, a parasite that can cause serious health problems. It is important to note that pregnant women who already have cats at home do not need to get rid of their cats, but they should learn more and follow tips to reduce their risk of getting infected. Pet rodents can sometimes be carriers for lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus or LCMV, which can cause birth defects in children if mothers are exposed during pregnancy.
The good news is that knowing about health concerns and how to prevent them can help people stay healthy while enjoying their pets. One important tip is that everyone should always wash their hands regularly after being around animals to reduce the risk of exposure to harmful germs.
Also, one of the best ways to keep your family healthy and safe is to keep your pet healthy and safe. Whether it is a parakeet, or iguana, dog, or horse make sure you have a veterinarian who can provide routine care for your pet and help you look out for illnesses that could make your pet or your family ill. Talk to your veterinarian about the most important vaccines for keeping your pet healthy and about the need for deworming or flea and tick control options for your pet.
At CDC, I work in the One Health Office. One Health recognizes that the health of people is closely connected to the health of animals and our shared environment. Our bond with animals and enjoyment of nature are important for staying active, healthy, and happy. However, it’s important to be aware of risks from harmful germs and to know the simple ways to reduce the risk of illnesses or injury from pets and other animals. CDC works 24/7 to track diseases that spread between animals and people and to help prevent outbreaks before they occur. If you want to learn more to keep you and your family safe from these diseases, check out CDC’s Healthy Pets Healthy People website to learn which pet is best for your family.