Our pet problems
Many of us have pets — dogs, cats, birds or ornamental fish. Unfortunately, we are neither well-versed in the care of animals nor aware of the dangers they can pose to their human family. We need to consult veterinarians who are trained in animal care.
Somehow, fish seem harmless. They just swim around in a tank and are known to be calming. All aquariums need care and frequent changing of water. This means contact with the water though not necessarily with the fish themselves. Fishes can be asymptomatic carriers of bacteria and virus such as mycobacterial (from the family that causes tuberculosis) streptococcus, klebsiella and salmonella. If salmonella is ingested, it can cause diarrhoea. The other organisms can invade the skin and produce ulcers and nodules. They can affect the heart, brain and joints. They can also cause atypical tuberculosis.
Cats are not as territorial as dogs. They come and go freely, do not dirty the house and are affectionate. Unfortunately, they can be asymptomatic and yet transmit rabies, that fatal disease, through scratches and bites. Since they roam freely and get into fights with other cats, it is not possible to keep tabs on them. Scratches and bites can also result in “cat scratch disease”. A blister develops at the site of the scratch; the local lymph nodes become enlarged, there may be general symptoms such as fever, headache, painful muscles and fatigue. It may take several months for complete recovery. Contact with an infected cat’s faeces can cause salmonellosis, giardia and worm infestation. The worms can migrate under the skin, producing itchy red rashes. Cats can spread toxoplasmosis. Though this parasitic infection is harmless in healthy adults, it is dangerous in pregnant women. The unborn child can be affected, producing “congenital toxoplasmosis”. This can result in miscarriage or a child with multiple problems such as blindness, deafness, seizures and mental retardation.
Parrots, mynas and lovebirds make popular pets. They stay in cages, do not eat much and sleep at night. But they too can suffer from infections, yet be asymptomatic and transmit the disease to their human handlers. Avian flu, parrot fever, salmonellosis and some other viral infections are transmitted to humans from birds. Birds can also be infested with tiny ticks and fleas which can cause allergies in humans.
Dogs are man’s best friends. They are handled, petted and cuddled by humans. They can transmit campylobacter and worms, (hookworm, roundworm and tapeworm). Most dangerous of all, dogs can asymptomatically carry and transmit the fatal rabies infection.
Keeping pets has advantages. It alleviates loneliness in senior citizens and ill people who are on their own. It enforces some amount of exercise in their owners, as dogs (unlike cats) have to be taken for walks. It reduces stress. It teaches children responsibility and discipline. It improves functioning in autistic children.
With some precautions, keeping pets can be safe and provide immeasurable mental and physical health benefits. Just keep these things in mind.
- Immunise your dog or cat. Deworm them regularly. Give boosters every year. Remember, despite vaccination and regular deworming they can carry the virus
- Immunise yourself and all members of the household against rabies. The pre-exposure prophylaxis consists of three injections in the deltoid region of the arm on days 1,7 and 21 or 28
- Always wash your hands after touching any pet
- Use rubber gloves and wear an apron while cleaning fish tanks.
- Do not keep birds inside the bedroom. Keep them in an area has plenty of ventilation.
The writer is a paediatrician with a family practice at Vellore and author of Staying Healthy in Modern India.
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