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By Nancy Gottesman
We are a pet-loving nation: At least 39 percent of us own dogs, and 33 percent care for cats. But even though your chosen chum can provide you with much joy, did you also know that some pet diseases can be passed to human owners?
"None of these pet diseases happens very frequently, but it is still smart to be aware of them," says veterinarian Kate E. Creevy, assistant professor of small animal internal medicine at the University of Georgia. Here's a brief overview of pet diseases to ask your doctor about if you think someone you love is at risk.
Hookworms can be transmitted by both dogs and cats. Hookworm larvae penetrate the skin and develop into half-inch-long worms that crawl just beneath the skin's surface. You usually find them in the foot or leg area. Look for skin inflammation and serpentine-like lesions. Electricians, plumbers, other workers who crawl beneath buildings, sunbathers who rest on larvae-contaminated sand and kids who play in contaminated playgrounds are the most likely to get hookworms.
Roundworms in dog intestines can cause the parasitic disease toxocariasis. Most of the time, toxocariasis does not produce symptoms and doesn't even need to be treated. But in some cases, toxocariasis can damage tissues and cause vision problems or blindness. Serious cases mostly affect children who have accidentally ingested worm eggs after playing in an area with contaminated stool or soil. "Sometimes you can see a little worm in the back of your child's eye," says veterinarian Amber Andersen, animal services manager at the Annenberg Foundation Project in Torrance, Calif. This is why it's important to keep young kids away from areas where a dog may have defecated and to teach them not to put anything in their mouths while playing.
Bacterial infections from dog and cat bites are more common than you might think. Cat bites can infect you with pasteurella, a bacteria that causes swelling, fever, inflammation of the bone and sometimes even death. Dog bites can transmit staphylococcus, a group of bacteria that can cause a variety of diseases. If a dog or cat bite has broken skin, "see a doctor because you may need antibiotics," advises Andersen.
Cat scratch disease (or fever, as the lyrics go) isn't just a cliche '80s hair band song. This real pet disease is caused by the bacteria Bartonella henselae, which is transmitted by a cat's scratch or bite. You can develop an infection at the injury point as well as swollen lymph nodes, fever, headache and fatigue. Not all infected cat-scratch wounds are Bartonellosis, however, and most cases resolve without treatment -- though it's still a good idea to check with your doctor if these symptoms develop following a cat scratch.
Toxoplasmosis, also known as "litter box disease," is caused by a parasite that can be carried by cats. It is transmitted to humans through contact with eggs passed in the cat's stool (as well as by eating undercooked meat). While toxoplasmosis is rare, and most adults don't develop symptoms, this particular pet disease gets a lot of attention because if a pregnant woman is infected, it can cause blindness, deafness, seizures and mental retardation in the fetus. "If you're pregnant, you don't need to get rid of your cat," says Anderson. "Instead, simply use gloves when you clean the litter box," or have someone else do it until after the baby is born.
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Nancy GottesmanNancy Gottesmanwas a senior editor at Shape magazine for 11 years. Since going freelance, she's been writing on health and nutrition for such magazines as Ladies' Home Journal, O: The Oprah Magazine, Parents, Women's Health, Fit Pregnancy, Viv and Family Circle.