Last week a report on pets giving people scary diseases got people talking about the hidden, scary dangers of letting a pet sleep in your bed. Bruno Chomel and B. Sun went through the medical literature and found every terrifying case they could of a person catching a disease from an animal, then put it together in the February (not out yet) issue of the CDC’s Emerging Infectious Diseases.
“Having a pet in the bed is not a good idea,” said Chomel, who is probably a cat person or even maybe some kind of snake collector, judging by his view on the human-animal bond. He admonishes people from kissing pets, lets dogs lick them and tells us that if we for some reason must have contact, for god’s sake, scrub up afterwards. Every time.
The doctors count 250 zoonoses (diseases than people can catch from animals) and say 100 can be caught from pets, including meningitis and the plague. That’s true. But it’s really more a reliable way of scaring animal lovers than it is of conveying medical truth.
A similar study in the same journal looked at pets and humans catching three zoonoses, including Q Fever and Cat Scratch Fever, formally known as (Bartonella henselae). This 2003 study by Martina Skergetand others found there was no difference in the prevalence of anti-bodies between pet owners and non-pet owners. So, while it’s physically possible that people could catch the disease from their companion animals, there was no evidence they really did.
The alarmist researchers also cite a case of a boy catching bubonic plague from a cat with fleas. The CDC says about 10 to 15 Americans catch the plague each year. The case they cite is from 1974. I can’t access their paper yet, so I don’t know if they cited anything more current or if that was just the one the media picked up on. If there wasn’t another case, it means in the intervening 36 years, somewhere between 360 and 540 Americans got the plague without a dog or cat causing it.
The boy with the flea-bitten cat story was never confirmed, either. And the cat wasn’t too much of a pet. The boy just reported that he noticed the bites after he woke up with the cat, which then could not be found to test for titers (antibodies that appear to fight a specific disease), according to a 1977 paper on the outbreak. Only 7 of 26 dogs and one cat out of 20 pets had a positive titer test. No exactly Typhoid Kitty here.
Plague, lyme disease and many other zoonoses are spread by fleas, typically on wild rodents. (No amount of Purell or stern house rules are going to help.) But, as Bill Bryson points out in his fascinating new book At Home: A Short History of Private Life that doesn’t mean we should get rid of all the animals–because fleas will choose them over us.
“Modern epidemiologists in places where plague is still common–notably parts of Africa and Asia–generally avoid culling rats and other rodents too enthusiastically during outbreaks. In a very real sense there is no more welcome time for rats to be around than when plague is rampant.”
Epidemiologists might spare rats and mice, but you know who doesn’t? Cats and dogs. I’m going to bet they keep away more mice and disease than they bring us.
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