When I’m sick, I want my dog Henry close. He keeps me warm and safe and comforts me when I’m miles away from my mom. Since dogs pick up on physical and emotional cues, it’s nice knowing he’ll be by my side when I’m not feeling too hot. And since most of us – myself included – are huge babies when we’re sick, his unconditional love speaks volumes when people (cough, cough boyfriends) quarantine me alone in a room and only check in if it sounds like I’m really dying. But is it best to have Henry by my side when I’m the walking plague? Could my sickness cause him harm?
While most people have heard of bird or swine flu and how they spread from animals to humans, most people – especially pet owners – are not aware of illnesses that can be spread from themselves to their pets. But in fact, there are human diseases that can your cat or dog sick. While zoonosis is a disease that can be transmitted to humans from animals, "reverse zoonosis" is a disease that can be transmitted from animals to humans. And although it is still widely misunderstood and understudied, it has raised concerns among scientists and veterinarians since so many Americans have pets.
According to the Dr. John Santilli, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) on zoonotic diseases and Trupanion’s Veterinary Advisory board member, when it comes to reverse zoonosis, there are seemingly endless ways your germs can pass over to your pet. Just a few examples: "Aerosol spray, skin contact through a scratch or open wound, bites through saliva, urogenital contact (urine or feces) and vector-borne transmission (like fleas, ticks, flies, or mosquitoes)." Yikes.
So now I know my germs can pass to my pet a million different ways - I can pet him, touch his food dish, cough, or kiss him, and he can instantly have whatever I do. But when it comes to actually getting sick, experts say that dogs are less likely to get sick from humans than cats are. "Dogs do have their own version of the flu virus and can be vaccinated for this flu. However, flu outbreaks in canines are rare and often isolated.," says Brian Ogle, a science instructor specializing in animal shelters and pet/animal ownership at Beacon College in Leesburg, FL. But if you’re a cat owner, brace yourself - you’re more in sync with her than you ever dreamed! Cats can get sick from humans because the flu virus attaches itself to cells in the respiratory tract of cats the way it does in humans.
According to details published in professional journal Veterinary Pathology, the first recorded case of human-to-cat H1N1 flu transmission occurred in Oregon in 2009 where the sick pet owner contracted the flu and was hospitalized due to its severity. While she was in the hospital, her indoor cat died of pneumonia caused by an H1N1 infection, and since the cat had not been exposed to other people, animals, homes, environments, or wildlife, the human-to-cat flu transmission is believed to be linked. In 2011 and 2012, researchers identified 11 cats, 1 dog, and some ferrets with the H1N1 infection that appeared to have come from humans. Since the idea of reverse zoonosis is so new and understudied, it’s reasonable to assume there may be more undiscovered cases. What’s more, scientists fear the flu virus could mutate into a more dangerous form as it is passed from humans to pets: "Any time you have infection of a virus into a new species, it’s a concern, a black box of uncertainty,"Christine Loehr, a professor at the OSU College of Veterinary Medicine, told Smithsonian.
Scary, huh? I certainly don’t want to Henry to get sick from stupid cold, let alone die. Fortunately, Dr. Santilli told me transmission of zoonotic diseases can be avoided simply by cleaning food and water bowls regularly, cleaning the litter box or scooping yard feces daily, and keep your pet from swimming or walking in stagnant water. It’s also important to maintain regular vet visits. When you get those friendly reminder emails or postcards (do vets still send those?), don’t ignore them! Make her health a priority by vaccinating and deworming her and using flea and tick preventative measures regularly.
In order to keep your pet safe and healthy, it’s a good idea to keep yourself safe and healthy:
Practice good hygiene. "Like most disease prevention good hygiene is key," says Dr. Lucy O’Byrne, Chief Veterinarian Officer and co-founder of Kuddly. "Wash hands regularly, especially before eating or feeding your dog. If you are having symptoms of coughing and sneezing, try to avoid letting your dog lick your face and hands until you have recovered."
Stay away from your pet when you’re sick. I know, I know, it’s tough, but what’s worse – a few days away from your pet or getting her sick and possibly losing her forever?
Avoid contact with wild animals. But if you work with domesticated animals regularly – perhaps at a vet’s office or animal shelter – make sure you wash your hands and change clothes before you touch your pet to help prevent further transmission of zoonotic diseases.
Most importantly: if you see symptoms, go to the vet!
Routine visits to the vet will help accomplish and eliminate most of the risk factors in contracting zoonotic disease. However, if you are sick and your pet starts experiencing respiratory or flu-like symptoms after being around you, take her to the vet immediately.
Maintaining routine visits to the vet is also vital for long-term wellness success. Dr. Patrick Mahaney, certified veterinary journalist and house-call veterinarian through his company California Pet Acupuncture and Wellness, told me that, "Chronic and sometimes-hidden ailments like periodontal disease, obesity, glandular disorders (hypothyroidism, kidney/liver disease, etc.), cancer, and others can cause an energetic drain on the immune system that inhibits the ability to best prevent invading pathogens like viruses." During your dog's next vet trip and wellness exam, channel Dr. Mahaney’s advice. If you discuss things like periodontal disease and obesity with your vet, you can create a preventative plan to tackle them before they become a problem.
So while your pet may get sick of you from time to time, it’s rare that he’ll get sick from you. If you maintain healthy everyday practices in your life and keep him, his food, and his water fresh and clean, you’ll be sure to keep reverse zoonosis to a minimum.