Pet Medicine: Part 1, Zoonosis
“You’re sick,” friends and family tell me repeatedly. (Like I don’t know! I’m the one who has to struggle to find a way to live with this ailing, failing body, a task made infinitely more difficult in the prolonged absence of an income or health insurance.) “You’ve got to get rid of those animals; they’re making you sick with all their germs.”
Could this be true? I’ve always lived with dogs and cats. But it’s only in the last few years that I’ve gotten so ill. And it’s only in the past year or so that I acquired so many pets, due to, well, circumstances. Maybe the sheer number of animal companions, combined with my persistent ailments, is what prompts people to volunteer this unwelcome “diagnosis.”
All the same, I’m getting more and more desperate for answers to the increasing seriousness and number of my health issues. This was yet another area where I could be proactive in trying to help myself by researching information that might benefit my health. I’d already investigated the possibilities of lifestyle changes, dietary modifications and herbal supplements, since no easy or common diagnosis was forthcoming after years of general-assistance healthcare. (Medicaid was a godsend to me, though, enabling me to see doctors from time to time—specialists, too!—instead of just one dismissive 10-minute G.P. appointment every six months at best, as in pre-ObamaCare days.)
So, despite my resistance to the idea that my precious pets might be adversely affecting my health, I’m possessed of a vigorous sense of self-preservation, sufficient research skills and the temporary willingness to set my own preconceived pro-pet convictions aside so I can look into the possibility. What I’m discovering is quite interesting if, as yet, inconclusive. Time and, hopefully, Medicare will tell. (Once I, my lawyer, my congressman and all the kind experts who’ve piled onto the case get to the bottom of a bureaucratic glitch that unaccountably cancelled my Medicaid benefits and denied me access to outpatient services even after I qualified for the alphabet parts of Medicare.)
Come to find out there’s quite a lot of research concerning vertebrate animal infections and diseases humans can contract, which are called zoonoses. These are transmitted via bites and saliva (like rabies), through ticks and fleas (like Lyme disease), from contact with infected waste (e.g., hantavirus) and from consuming improperly processed food products of animal origin (E. coli, salmonella, etc.).
So, if you value your health, stay away from all wild primates (especially those you meet in bars), bats, deer, antelope, bison, elk, caribou, horses, porcupines, armadillos, raccoons, foxes, skunk, cattle, swine, sheep, goats, chickens, turkeys, wolves, coyotes, mongooses, reptiles, snakes, fish, seals, whales, birds, opossums, rodents, rabbits, beavers, badgers, otters, weasels, etc. In short, pretty much anything you’re likely—and unlikely—to encounter in the world.
Zoonoses can also be transmitted via any feral pet-type animal, and domestic pets that aren’t current on their vaccinations and other preventative treatments. So zoonoses, as the term implies, can ride in on any critter you might come across. And whatever you do, don’t eat an animal or animal product if you’re concerned about acquiring animal-borne infection or disease. As we will see, there are worse things you can do, but ingesting meat of any kind, eggs and dairy products is right up there with riskiest behaviors regarding zoonotic diseases.
Other than refraining from engaging in carnivorous activities and inappropriate interactions with wild animals and strange pet animals of unknown veterinary histories, the best course you can take is to keep up on vaccinations and other health maintenance with your own household of pets, including flea- and tick-treating them regularly. I also recommend the following additional safety measures, based upon extensive research:
- Don’t touch feces with your bare hands. (Enough said, right? Or so you’d think, anyway. I found a LOT of compelling data substantiating this apparently often-overlooked detail, in case anyone actually needs reasons to leave poop alone.)
- Avoid getting bitten by strange animals, whether they appear rabid or not. (Should be self-evident but, again, enough sources stress this point that it may not be.) I myself have had to undergo the entire series of rabies shots—long ago, before the ordeal became “easier.” But that’s another story, my point here being that, even free of such a grave zoonotic risk, I take pains to keep my body parts out of animals’ mouths. Rabies shots aren’t going to keep my face or limbs from getting shredded off.
- Don’t let your pets drink from the toilet. I know they think it’s a very inviting punch bowl, but keeping the lid down thwarts their desire for toilet water. Compensate them by providing an alternate bowl of fresh, clean water.
- Don’t handle snakes. (Ick, anyway! As my dear friend Diana said, “If snakes were meant to be pets, they’d have fur.”)
- Wash your hands thoroughly and vigorously immediately after failing to do any of the above. Depending upon which piece of excellent advice you spaced off, you might also want to seek prompt medical intervention.
That said, toxoplasmosis is a real threat, particularly in its potential for harm to babies of women who contract it while pregnant. So if your wife asks you to clean the cat box during her pregnancy, do it; she’s not just making this up to get out of a chore. Scoop that litter every single day, guys. This is important because toxo needs several days to get going and a daily cat-box cleaning won’t give it any opportunity to start. And do all food preparation that involves handling raw meat for the family, too.
And ladies, if you must clean cat boxes or manipulate raw meat while pregnant, please wear gloves. The same goes for working in the garden or anywhere you might come into contact with soil that could harbor the toxo-causing parasite. Just be aware of and guard against the ways humans contract the disease: by touching infected cat feces, handling or eating raw or undercooked meat, drinking raw goat’s milk or getting a blood transfusion from an infected person.
An additional precaution that had not occurred to me is to locate cat boxes away from eating areas. So the take-away here is: No litter boxes in the dining room and don’t handle raw meat or cat poop in the kitchen. Sound advice for anyone, pregnant or otherwise.
Cats get a bad rap for the disease because they’re subject to it, just as humans are. If you’re in doubt, get your cat tested. Keep it indoors (where it can’t pick up the parasite) and don’t feed it any raw or questionable meat, only dry or canned cat food. Don’t fondle strays or bring new cats with unknown histories into your household if you’re pregnant. And strenuously resist any urge to handle strange cat poop.
Being all vigilant like I am, I consider it ironic that I’m the only member of my household to contract Lyme disease. I’ve never found a tick on any of my dogs, only myself. Maybe I’m the one who should be getting the tick/flea treatments, at least a collar or something. I do wish human medical care were half as affordable and easy to come by as veterinary care.
Both the dogs and cats get regular worm prevention treatments, yet I’m the only one who periodically suffers from worm infestations. But Western people doctors are extremely reluctant to treat for worms—even when faced with a cottage-cheese container full of evidence. Why do dogs and cats get all the parasite remedies while we humans suffer?
There really is a great disparity between the cost, compassion and comprehensiveness of human versus pet health care. One of my Border Collie puppies recently hurt his foot something terrible—bleeding all over the place—and I was able to get him in to the vet the same day. Twain got sedated, stitched up, wrapped and medicated for a little under $100, including an overnight stay, follow-up care and suture removal. I was sorely tempted to ask if the vet could prescribe some extra antibiotics for a throat, lung, ear and sinus infection I’d been sporting for a month and a half, to counteract the accompanying vertigo and hearing loss, if not the ongoing pain and misery. How I wish human healthcare could be as accessible and humane as veterinary medicine, and so free of all the time-consuming, nerve-wracking insurance and bureaucratic rigmarole!
But, regarding infection, humans in general—and children in particular—are, of course, the very worst sources. Even healthy folks are vulnerable to human-borne diseases. Immune-compromised people, such as myself, don’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell in the virus-ridden public, doctors’ waiting rooms being virtual festering cesspools of contagion. Public assistance healthcare, when it was available to me, was a dehumanizing cattle call wherein everyone had to take a succession of numbers and wait in a succession of lines. It was an all-day procedure that necessarily confined you to small spaces overcrowded with sick people who were naturally completely out of patience. It was never pretty. Many folks were clearly (by the smell of them, anyway) nicotine addicts undergoing withdrawal symptoms. But if you left a line to use the bathroom, much less go out for a cigarette, you were likely to lose your place and have to start the entire process all over again the next day. So it’s no wonder that even the most frightened and meanest-tempered dogs don’t snap and snarl as much as these people suffering long hours of privation.
Many were the times I’ve been just too sick to withstand the grueling doctor ordeal, especially because it meant you couldn’t eat or drink without risking the need for a bathroom break (lines started at 7 a.m. with long travel distances to the only two public-assistance centers in the entire big state of Iowa) until as late as 5 p.m. when the clinic shut its doors, whether it was able to accommodate you that day or not. Certainly never on a Monday, weekends being the cause for many acute medical conditions in that population. And, even if I did succeed in receiving treatment for my original affliction, I often came home with something worse than what I went in for. I would say I don’t miss that process one bit, but sometimes you need antibiotics, a remedy no longer available to me. And, every once in a while, instead of the abysmal worst behavior you’d expect and could depend upon experiencing, you’d see the very best of humanity rise up amidst those dire circumstances. This rare phenomenon would be awesome and inspiring.
All the same, there’s never a dispiriting day-long wait with infected folks and their unruly germ-spewing offspring like that at the vet’s. They do appointments. And the vet has a turtle tank.
Neither have I or my pets ever returned home from a vet visit with a different ailment than we went in for. I think it’s also notable that, while a wealth of research exists on animal-to-human disease transmission (zoonosis), there’s as yet almost none about the other side of the coin, human-to-animal communicable diseases (anthroponosis or reverse zoonosis). Aside, that is, from influenza, which we’re all too familiar with, frequently spreading the joy to our animal companions, along with MRSA and AIDS. And the fact that exposure to second-hand smoke doubles a cat’s chances of contracting lymphoma, a risk which triples after five years. (Like the overwhelming majority of domestic animals, my pets are non-smokers.)
The (so far) established preponderance of animal-to-human versus human-to-animal transmission of disease might be because animals eat people far less often than we eat them. (Although there have undoubtedly been a few gut-sick lions and tigers and bears in the past who suffered unfortunate digestive consequences of getting ahold of a bad raw human.)
In 2014, Bill Gates posted an infographic on his blog that shows the breakdown for deadliest animals in terms of resultant human fatalities. Of all the horrible killers in the world, mosquitoes are by far the worst, according to Gates’s statistics, causing an average of 725,000 human deaths annually through disease transmission. All other non-human animals that contribute to human mortality by means of infectious disease positively pale in comparison to all but one other grave health threat.
The moral here is to kill every mosquito you see. Not even friends with the strongest animal-activist tendencies hesitate to heed this atavistic call to self-protection. They trap indoor flies, spiders and mice to return, unharmed, to their natural habitat. But they’re as quick as anyone to swat a mosquito; it’s a primal reaction. Kill it! Kill ’em all! Kill ’em extra-dead, just to be sure. Even the Dali Lama, as he confessed to Bill Moyers in a 2007 interview, swats at mosquitoes. And I’m certain Noah tried to exclude mosquitoes from his ark of animals. But, with all that standing water around, how could he keep them away? Off! wouldn’t be invented for millennia. And he only had the two bats and two swallows.
Oh, and be sure to stay away from other people. Bill Gates’s information ascribed 475,000 yearly human deaths to humans by means of murder, war, etc. But, when viewed in terms of disease-transmission, humans account for at least 5,000,000 additional deaths annually via infectious disease, such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and flu. It’s inadvisable, however, to kill these deadly pests as casually as mosquitoes, since there are legal consequences. But do take care to keep this other very lethal species from killing you.
People don’t always know when they’re harboring an infectious disease and can’t always be blamed for its unintentional transmission. All the same, proximity violations that could result in death are often avoidable with vigilance and the proper equipment. Mace, for example, is the human equivalent of Off! As in the case of mosquitoes, this isn’t as effective as death, but it can be a powerful deterrent. In a pinch, guns are good, too.
And dogs. Dogs are the very best and first line of defense when it comes to threatening encounters. My dogs have literally saved my life from aggressive humans several times. And they’ve undoubtedly come between me and harm on more occasions than I’m aware of. That’s their job as self-appointed Ministers of Security.
My study will be ongoing, but my working premise is that even if my well-vetted, -vaccinated and -treated dogs do pose a remote threat to my health, they carry nothing like the infectious danger humans do. (A mere 25,000 yearly fatalities, according to Gates’s statistics—as opposed to over five million—due to rabies, an entirely preventable disease.) And the fact that they’ve kept me alive in the face of violent human intruders’ attempts to kill me could be a compensating factor. If my pets might be making me sick, I’d much prefer sickness to death.
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