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Pets, we all know, add an awful lot to your life: love, health, and sometimes protection. There's one thing we don't want to share with them though, and that's their germs. How do you keep yourself and your loved-ones free from pet health hazards?

I grew up with horses and had many pets — from budgies to goats and from snakes to ferrets — later in life. My lifelong wish, though, had always been to have a dog. First my parents didn't let me have one, then I ended up traveling, and then I got into a relationship with someone who didn't like dogs. When I became single again, I knew it was time to finally make that wish come true. I got a puppy, and for 16 years she was the most loyal friend imaginable. So yes, I know all about the benefits of having pets first-hand.

The CDC says that pets reduce your blood pressure, bring down cholesterol and triglyceride levels, help you ensure you get enough exercise, and, in some cases, offer you new social opportunities. Social-minded pets like dogs and cats ensure that you're never lonely. Children raised with pets have stronger immune systems and a lower risk of developing allergies. For people with disabilities, therapeutic animals can be literal life-savers, and some animals help guard us and our homes from invaders. 

The benefits of having pets are numerous and well-investigated, and on a less scientific level, there's simply nothing that can replace that bond we have with our animals.

Still, if you're a pet owner or considering getting a pet, it is also important to be aware of the health hazards that can endanger both you and your animals. What are the top pet health hazards, and how can you keep yourself and your beloved friend safe?

Watch Out For Ticks!

You have almost certainly heard of Lyme Disease, the most common tick-borne disease. This disease can cause debilitating symptoms including serious inflammation, limb numbness, paralyzed facial muscles, confusion, headaches, and vision loss if it isn't treated in its early stages. Contrary to popular belief, ticks don't jump out of trees. They do climb up from bushes and grass, and though you may be taking precautions that make tick bites less likely while you are out and about — precautions such as tucking your pants into your socks — your cat, dog, or other pets that roam the great outdoors probably aren't. When your furry friend comes indoors, and you cuddle up with them, any ticks that might have come onto their body may transfer to yours. I was infected myself once, something that might have come from my dog. 

Tick bites are hard to prevent if your animals are outside often, but do check your body for ticks every time you get in the shower, remove them by pulling them out by the head, and watch out for the notorious "bulls-eye rash" that's an early warning sign you have Lyme Disease.

Contacting your healthcare provider for testing and treatment early will minimize your chances of ending up with permanent complications greatly. 

Toxoplasmosis

Toxoplasmosis is a disease caused by the single-celled parasite Toxoplasma gondii. Though most infected people won't be aware they have it, toxoplasmosis can cause flu-like symptoms, vision problems, and even brain damage. Besides eating undercooked meat, contact with cat feces is one of the prime modes of transmission. How do you avoid getting toxoplasmosis if you have cats? Here are some tips:

  • Wear gloves while gardening, a piece of advice that also applies to people who don't have cats, as cat feces are probably still found in your garden. 
  • Don't touch stray cats or kittens.
  • Fetuses and people with weak immune systems are especially at risk of severe vision issues and brain damage, the most extreme consequences of toxoplasmosis. If you are pregnant or immunocompromised, either avoid cleaning your cat's litter box altogether and have someone else do it, or at least wear gloves while doing it. 
  • Keep your cats indoors to minimize their risk of being infected, in turn reducing your chance of ending up with toxoplasmosis. 

More Pet Hazards To Watch Out For

Worms

Parasitic worms may cause serious symptoms such as a skin rash, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and weight loss, but they may also cause no noticeable symptoms at all, depending on the species. Nonetheless, nobody wants a parasitic worm infection. You can most effectively prevent ending up with a tapeworm infection by keeping your pets free of fleas, as tapeworm larvae are found inside infected fleas. Hookworm, however, can be shed through infected pet feces, and the same goes for roundworm. A dual approach of keeping your pets dewormed and ensuring that you wear gloves and wash your hands after handling pet feces keeps your risk to a minimum.

Salmonella

Should you own reptiles and amphibians like turtles, lizards, snakes, or frogs, there is a chance that your pet carries the infamous bacterium salmonella, which leads to food poisoning. The CDC estimates that around 70,000 people get a salmonella infection from contact with reptiles in the United States each year.

To prevent a nasty salmonella infection, wash your hands after handling your reptile or amphibian, clean their habitat outside the home while wearing gloves, and make sure you simply don't let anyone with a compromised immune system handle your pet. 

Rabies

While no cases of rabies have been reported in my native Holland for many years, the disease still kills around 59,000 people worldwide each year. Only one human with rabies ever made it out alive, and that was due to a combination of sheer luck and revolutionary medical experimentation. All others have died horrible, painful deaths. If you are a responsible pet owner you do, of course, get your pet vaccinated against rabies every year. But did you know you should still take your pet to the vet if you suspect they have been bitten by a rabid animal? Well, you do now. If you think you or someone in your household has been exposed to rabies, you need to get medical attention right away: rabies prophylactics will keep you safe. 

Cat-Scratch Disease

Bartonellosis, more commonly known as cat-scratch disease, is a bacterial infection caused by Bartonella henselae. Transmitted through flea feces and more common in kittens than adult cats, humans can get cat-scratch disease if they are scratched or licked by an infected cat. Symptoms include swollen lymph nodes, headaches, and fever. Most people will recover without any problems, but some will need antibiotics and a smaller percentage will need to be hospitalized. Around 25,000 people a year need to stay in hospital for a while to recover from cat-scratch disease in the US.

You can prevent cat-scratch disease by keeping your feline friends flea-free and gently filing their nails to reduce their ability to draw blood when they play with you.

People with compromised immune systems should, unfortunately, avoid playing with kittens.

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