How safe are your pets?

Keeping a pet as a companion animal can have a lot of positives, including, but not limited to social, emotional, and health benefits. The American Heart Association went so far as to declare in a report that owning a pet, specifically, a dog, is beneficial for one’s cardiac health. However, one risk that remains ignored in the discourse around having pets is the zoonotic risks posed by having pets.

Studies have shown that households where children are suffering from cancer and are immunocompromised following chemotherapy often acquire pets to keep the children company; unfortunately, in over three-fourths of these cases, the animals are considered to be of high risk variety based on the potential of infection transmission. (1) The irony of the matter is that even physicians rarely initiate the dialogue about potential zoonotic risks, even for high risk patients, as those who have been diagnosed with AIDS. (2) This apparent dichotomy is worsened by the absolute lack of communication between physicians and veterinarians when it comes to treating patients with zoonosis. Although there is enough consensus between clinical physicians and veterinanrians to point to the immediate need of establishing two-way dialogues when it comes to treating zoonoses, there is hardly any communication on this matter. (2)

The risk of owning pets and the zoonotic potential of companion animals has received scant attention even from academic scientists. This becomes specially contextual in the setting of countries like India, where there is a cultural norm of adopting stray animals without proper vaccination and check-ups. Even globally, there are very few systematic reviews looking at the risks posed by pets and companion animals.

Exact estimates of how much of zoonoses occurs through contacts with pets is poorly understood owing to a host of factors. Lack of reporting frameworks, non-reportable status of most diseases, presence of complex transmission pathways, subclinical presentations providing no clinical clue and broad spectrum treatment plans that lead to “bystander” management of zoonotic diseases are some of the factors held responsible for the overall low prevalence of pet associated infections. (3) Modeling studies have suggested that in the case of infectious diseases, social contact with animals, especially through pet owners, poses a significant risk of explosive transmission of diseases. (4)

Unfortunately, owing to the relative absence of context specific data on pet handling and risks, most guidelines are either based on expert consensus or on scanty information. There is an urgent need to understand pathways of transmission, risk profiles, and modes to interrupt the transmission cycle of infectious agents between man and his pets within a context specific framework. For example, in rural or peri-urban areas of India, where man and his animals live in a relatively less hygienic environment, with poor sanitation, and in a milieu with higher risk of infectious disease transmission, implementation of guidelines and consensus statements developed in the western countries with impeccable hygiene is inappropriate.
The RCZI, as a leading agency delivering solutions and policy formulations to combat the emerging and re-emerging threats of zoonotic infectiosn, is envisioning ways and means to fulfill the evidence gap about pets and the risks of owning them in India.

Owning a pet may prove to be an extremely joyful experience. However, choose to take the onus of owning a pet armed with information and full realization that the responsibility of the animal, and the human beings around that animal, are yours to bear.

References

1. Stull JW, Brophy J, Sargeant JM, Peregrine AS, Lawson ML, Ramphal R, et al. Knowledge, attitudes, and practices related to pet contact by immunocompromised children with cancer and immunocompetent children with diabetes. J Pediatr [Internet]. 2014 Aug [cited 2015 Oct 16];165(2):348–55.e2. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24928703

2. Hill WA, Petty GC, Erwin PC, Souza MJ. A survey of Tennessee veterinarian and physician attitudes, knowledge, and practices regarding zoonoses prevention among animal owners with HIV infection or AIDS. J Am Vet Med Assoc [Internet]. 2012 Jun 15 [cited 2015 Oct 16];240(12):1432–40. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22657926

3. Glaser CA, Angulo FJ, Rooney JA. Animal-associated opportunistic infections among persons infected with the human immunodeficiency virus. Clin Infect Dis [Internet]. 1994 Jan [cited 2015 Oct 16];18(1):14–24. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8054433

4. Kifle YW, Goeyvaerts N, Van Kerckhove K, Willem L, Faes C, Leirs H, et al. Animal Ownership and Touching Enrich the Context of Social Contacts Relevant to the Spread of Human Infectious Diseases. PLoS One [Internet]. 2015 Jan [cited 2015 Oct 16];10(7):e0133461. Available from: http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=4508096&tool=pmcentrez&rendertype=abstract

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