Enjoy the Family Pet While Avoiding the Germs

Parents have been asking me some peticular questions about whether or not a pet can pass an illness on to their child.  While I am a strong proponent for pets, and believe they can teach children responsibility and respect for other living things, not to mention the companionship and affection they provide to children, they can also be a source for infection.  So, let me spread some information, rather than spread germs, on this topic so pets can be welcome members of the family.

First, be aware that pets do carry bacterial and viral germs that can spread to humans if proper precautions are not taken – especially to children less than five years old with developing immune systems, children with a break or cut in their skin, or if your child has cancer and is what we call “immunocompromised”. 

What kinds of diseases can be passed to a child from a dog or a cat?  These can include a form of diarrhea, swollen glands, fever, flu-like symptoms, skin infections, muscle aches and headaches –all of which can be transmitted by a direct bite or indirectly by a tick that lives on the pet, or by handling of pet waste products  without gloves.

Birds can pass fungus and bacterial germs as well – even if kept in a cage – due to inhalation of germs from bird droppings.  Reptiles and amphibians can be notorious for harboring salmonella, which can be passed to a child who handles their feces without washing afterward or wearing gloves beforehand.

So what can you do to prevent these infections from occurring?  Make sure your pet has been checked out by the veterinarian and is up-to-date on its vaccines – just as it is important for children to have been vaccinated and up-to-date on vaccines.  Feed your pet fresh water and nutritious food recommended by the vet, and not raw meat which can contain infection.

Most importantly, you and your children should always wash your hands after touching the pet, handling its food, cleaning the cage or litter box, and wear gloves when cleaning up waste.  If you have a bird, wear a dust mask over your nose and mouth to prevent inhaling urine or fecal particles, and don’t have younger children clean cages or litter boxes without adult supervision. 

Keep their living area clean and free of waste, and pick  up waste products  if deposited in areas that kids play in (such as the back yard) so the pet’s germs don’t get onto your child’s hands and in turn cause infection.  Don’t bathe or clean pets in the sink or bathtub that might also be used by your child or another adult. 

Hopefully tips like this will have you barking up the right tree when it comes to knowing more about how to enjoy the family pet without increasing the risk for that pet to cause an infection in your child. 

Lewis First, M.D., is chief of Pediatrics at Vermont Children's Hospital at Fletcher Allen Health Care and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. You can also catch "First with Kids" weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and WPTZ Channel 5, or visit the First with Kids video archives at http://www.FletcherAllen.org/firstwithkids.