Could My Dog Make Me Sick?

If you’re like a lot of dog owners, you may view your furry companion as a member of the family. And it’s likely you have a pretty healthy relationship with your pet beyond just the warm and fuzzy way it makes you feel. Though it’s common to pick up a bug — say cold or seasonal flu germs — from living in close quarters with other humans, rarely will contact with a dog make you sick.

But it does happen. That much was clear with a disease outbreak investigated by local and state health and agricultural departments and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention involving puppies and at least 118 people in 18 states, described in a recent report published by the CDC. The outbreak included primarily pet store employees and a few people who purchased puppies from a breeder, plus one person who’d come in contact with an adult dog and another who had no known dog exposure, all who had been determined to have contracted multidrug-resistant Campylobacter jejuni. The infectious disease caused by bacteria can lead to symptoms ranging from diarrhea that’s often bloody to fever and abdominal cramps — and in these cases, it didn’t respond to antibiotics that are commonly used to treat Campylobacter infections.

The CDC notes that Campylobacter causes an estimated 1.3 million illnesses annually in the U.S., and people with the infection can usually recover without treatment — though for some that’s needed. Campylobacter is mostly commonly spread through consumption of contaminated food, such as eating raw or undercooked poultry that contains the bacteria. But in some cases, transmission may result from human contact with the stool of infected animals — even microscopic amounts, like that which may end up on a dog’s nose when it sniffs feces or after it’s touched noses with another puppy that’s been doing the same.

The multistate investigation showed how puppies can be a source of drug-resistant Campylobacter, which in this case led to 26 hospitalizations (among 107, of the 118 people who contracted the disease in the outbreak, for whom hospital records were available). There were no deaths. “We determined that puppies may have become infected at various points along the distribution chain when they had contact with puppies from other breeders or distributors,” says Mark Laughlin, a veterinary epidemiologist at the CDC. While the lion’s share of those affected were employees of Petland, a pet store chain based in Ohio that has locations across the U.S. as well as internationally, the report published by the CDC in September on the two-year outbreak noted, “No single breeder, distributor or transporter was identified as the infection source.”

[See: 7 Ways Pets Can Make You Healthier.]

However, the CDC made recommendations to breeders, distributors that purchase puppies wholesale from breeders and sell them to pet stores, third-party companies that transport the animals and pet stores. Those included making sure employees regularly wash their hands, that routine, comprehensive sanitation practices are in place and more judicious use of antibiotics after it was determined that puppies were commonly given antibiotics prophylaxis, or for the purpose of prevention, rather than just to treat disease. As in people, more regular use of antibiotics in animals can contribute to drug resistance, making diseases harder to treat.

As a result of the inquiry, “the CDC had no new recommendations for Petland other than to continue our established practice of in-store hand sanitization and education,” Elizabeth Kunzelman, director of public affairs for Petland, said in an email. “There are signs posted prominently in stores explaining the risks and encouraging proper hand washing. Stores also have multiple hand sanitation stations available.”

Despite ongoing collaboration between health agencies and the pet industry, and given the complex network that delivers puppies from breeders to eventual pet owners, experts say that the potential for a future disease outbreak involving dogs and people remains. “Although the investigation is completed, the risk for multidrug-resistant Campylobacter transmission to employees and consumers continues,” wrote researchers in the CDC report.

In addition, there are a number of other diseases that can be passed between dogs and people, the CDC notes. These go beyond rabies, which is now well-controlled in the U.S. thanks, in large part, to vaccination programs. For example, dog hookworms can infect people when walking barefoot, kneeling or sitting on ground that’s been contaminated with stool from animals that have been infected; and dog tapeworm, a common parasite, can be spread through ingestion of infected fleas, though it rarely causes illness in pets or people, according to the CDC.

Fortunately, there are steps dog owners can protect take to protect themselves and their pets from Campylobacter infection and other disease threats.

Coming into contact with pet fecal matter — even if it’s microscopic — may put a person at risk for contracting an enteric disease (which affects the intestines) like Campylobacter or salmonella, explains Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. So practicing proper hygiene is key, including washing your hands after handling the pet, preparing its food or scooping its poop. “It’s all about hand-washing,” Osterholm emphasizes.

“The most important thing that people can do is just to always wash their hands,” Laughlin echoes. “It’s really important that people, especially children, older adults (and) those with immunocompromising conditions wash their hands really thoroughly with soap and running water for at least 20 seconds any time you’re interacting with animals — especially when you’re cleaning up after them.”

[See: Is it Healthy to Sleep With Your Pets?]

Besides being a veterinarian, Laughlin is a dog owner — and a parent. “We know that there’s huge benefits to having close interactions with dogs and cats and having them in our homes,” he stresses.

Still, like with hand-washing, he and other experts also recommend taking a pass on sloppy dog “kisses” in the name of prevention. That is to say, don’t let dogs lick your mouth or face — or for that matter any open wound or areas of broken skin.

“Not letting your pet lick your face — just very basic hygiene is very important,” reiterates Savonne Caughey, director of government affairs and the staff lead for Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council’s zoonosis committee. The council partners with the CDC to help spread it’s prevention messages related to zoonotic diseases — those which can be passed from animals to people or vice versa. “A lot of these animals are natural carriers of particular bacteria. For example, campylobacter could be found in healthy looking puppies,” Caughey says.

It’s also important to have a relationship with a veterinarian — just as humans are encouraged to have a primary care doctor — and make sure to get the dog in for routine care.

“The thing to keep in mind here is that animals are living creatures and disease transmission is fact of life — it does happen,” says Mike Bober, president and CEO of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council. “Certainly the best thing you can do is to take the steps to minimize the risk of transmission.”

Before purchasing or adopting a dog, get a detailed health history. “So, for example, has the animal received its vaccinations, does it have a health certificate, has it been treated for common parasites — and things like that,” Caughey suggests. “No matter the source — whether you’re getting your dog from a pet store or a breeder directly or a shelter — those are some very basic questions that you should be asking.” Bober adds: “Ask the breeder, ask the retailer or the shelter volunteer, ‘What do you know about the health of this animal? Has this animal ever been sick?'” he says. “You could ask them outright: ‘What antibiotics do you use?'”

[See: Is Your Pet Imperiling Your Health?]

At the end of the day, experts say it’s about taking what’s called a ” One Health” approach — which “recognizes that the health of people is connected to the health of animals and the environment,” the CDC notes. And as it turns out, some of the same steps that could reduce rare transmission of disease from your dog to you — namely hand-washing — will also reduce the much more likely prospect that you could pick something up from a human you’re sharing your space with as well.

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Could My Dog Make Me Sick? originally appeared on usnews.com