68.7% of Australian households have pets, giving us one of the highest rates of pet ownership in the world. According to a survey by Animal Medicines Australia, 48% of households have dogs, 33% have cats, 11% keep birds, 12% keep fish, 3% keep reptiles and 4% have small mammals.
Most of us consider pets to be part of the family and, in return, having a pet has been shown to have positive health benefits. Studies show owning a pet can reduce stress, increase rates of exercise and even reduce the incidence of allergies and help strengthen the immune system in children exposed to pets in early childhood.
But despite these benefits we need to be aware that our pets can share more than love with the rest of your family. Pets can carry bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi which can be transmitted to humans, especially young children, through bites, poop, saliva or dander.
Here are some tips about avoiding infections from your pets.
Firstly always take your pet for regular health check ups with you vet and make sure they are fully immunized, wormed, and have had flea and tick treatments.
Try to keep pets out of areas where you are preparing food, especially kitchen benchtops. As always, wash you hands with soap and dry thoroughly before handling food and after handling your pet, their food or toys. Don’t let your pets lick or take food from your plate. Don’t wash pet food bowls in with your own dishes, preferably wash them in a separate laundry sink if you have one.
Responsible pet ownership involves a lot of picking up poop which can transfer germs to your hands. Always wash your hands after cleaning out cages, fish tanks and cat litter and after picking up after your dog. When out walking your dog, and if you have been picking up poop, make sure you wash your hands or use hand sanitizer before you eat or drink anything.
Birds and reptiles
Birds, including your backyard chooks, and reptiles have been linked to salmonella infections in people. Make sure you and your children wash your hands after handling them or cleaning their environment.
If your chickens lay eggs, the eggs can also be a source of salmonella. Keep the nesting materials and litter clean and dry and change it regularly, gather eggs from their nesting places daily. Carefully check any eggs for cracks, wipe off any visible dirt with a dry cloth or paper towel but don’t wash the eggs in water – this can transfer the contamination into the egg contents. Always wash your hands after collecting eggs
Cats may pass on salmonella infections if they eat raw meat or eat wild birds or animals. It is best to feed them commercially prepared food and try to keep them inside. They can also pass on the infective stage of toxoplasma parasites that can be particularly risky for pregnant women and their unborn babies, and people with weakened immune systems. Try to avoid cleaning out litter trays if you are pregnant and empty litter trays daily as the parasites in the cat’s faeces don’t become infectious until 24 hours after being excreted from the cat.
If you grow your own fruit and vegetables make sure your pets or wild animals can’t poop where you are growing food. You might want to use gloves when gardening in case you come into contact with animal faeces and always wash your hands when you have finished
Petting zoos and farms
It’s great to for your children to have contact with farms animals but there have been cases of illness associated with handling them. You can avoid this by:
- Ensuring you or your child don’t eat or drink in animal areas including the feed that is meant to be for the animals
- Washing your hands after touching farm animals and not touching your mouth before washing your hands. Use hand sanitizer if soap and water aren’t available
- Help young children to wash their hands and make sure they don’t suck their fingers, bite their nails and eat dirt while they are around farm animals
- Don’t bring children’s toys, cups, bottles, dummies or strollers into animal areas
- Don’t let young children under five handle live poultry, chicks or ducklings without supervision
Diseases that can be transmitted between humans and animals (zoonoses) are rare but you can find out more here