But according to a new study published this month in the CDC’s Emerging Infectious Diseases journal, doggy and kitty bunkmates aren’t necessarily the best thing for human health. Among the risks: bacterial and viral infections, parasites, plague and cat scratch disease.
The study was carried out by researchers with the University of California-Davis and the California Department of Public Health, who reviewed the scientific literature for cases of zoonotic disease transmitted from pets to human companions.
Here’s a sampling of what they found: Several cases of plague that occurred in New Mexico over the course of a decade and were apparently transmitted by fleas found on cats and dogs who slept with their owners. A handful of documented cases of cat scratch disease linked to sleeping with or being licked by an infected cat. A case of meningitis in a 60-year-old British homemaker who “admitted to regularly kissing the family dog.” An Australian woman who developed septicemia and multiple organ failure after her puppy licked a wound on top of her foot. Instances of methicillin-resistant staph, hookworm and Chagas disease, all apparently transmitted through close contact with pets.
Whoa. Who knew?
Something tells me pet lovers aren’t going to take this news lying down. After the story was posted Tuesday on the ASPCA’s page on Facebook, the comment section exploded with reactions. At last count, more than 1,000 people had spoken their minds about their bond with their cats and dogs.
Some typical comments:
- “Now that I have Princess finally sleeping with me, I should kick her out? NO WAY!”
- “If I didn’t get to sleep with my little Yorky, I’d DIE!!!!”
- “The only health risk is the possibility of falling off the edge of the bed because they hog it.”
- “I don’t care what risks there may or may not be. My babies sleep with me, period!”
Talk about hitting a nerve. But I don’t think the response is surprising. Here in the U.S., we love our animal companions. The authors of the study cited statistics from several surveys indicating that more than 60 percent of American households are home to at least one pet. Many of these folks view their pets as members of the family (I know I certainly do), and the practice of allowing Rover and Fluffy on the bed at night is common. That makes the potential health risks a widespread issue.
Advice from the health community unfortunately is often at odds with how people feel about their pets. Recommendations for good “sleep hygiene” (a judgmental term if there ever was) often include banishing pets from the bedroom. Ditto for households where someone has asthma or allergies. I recall an intense discussion a few months ago in an online cancer forum, where someone posted that he was about to undergo a stem cell transplant and had been told by his oncologist to temporarily get rid of his dog.
The authors of this latest study in fact suggest that pet owners – especially young children and people who are immune-compromised – should be discouraged from sharing a bed with or kissing their pets.
In all fairness, the health implications of sleeping with our pets, kissing them or being licked by them haven’t been particularly well-studied. Nor is this level of human-animal contact often considered by hospitals and nursing homes when they craft their policies on animal visitors. Having some extra data about the potential risks isn’t automatically a bad thing, and being aware of the risks can be especially helpful for those who might be more vulnerable.
But should the results of this study make us change our ways? While it’s entirely possible to get plague or MRSA from the family pet, the incidence of cases like these is very low, at least in the United States. Some could probably have been prevented altogether with appropriate care – flea prevention, for instance, to reduce the likelihood that a pet will bring plague-carrying fleas into the house. Routine veterinary care, vaccinations and supervision to prevent dogs and cats from roaming freely all over the neighborhood also can go a long way toward enhancing the health of animals and humans alike.
As far as I’m concerned, the bottom line is this: The evidence that animal companions benefit our health far outweighs any of the bad stuff that might happen. So my cat will continue to share the bed at night – if, of course, that’s OK with her.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons