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By having a pet, you get a roommate who loves you unconditionally. But we often forget that they can carry diseases, some of which are potentially life-threatening. Here's why you should #WashYourHands around pets.

Pets are our pals, our “roomies”, our partners-in-crime. Our furry, feathered, or scaly companions play a big part in our lives and are nothing short of family. The close bonds we share with our pets often make us forget that some of the same bacteria that are perfectly normal for our pets can cause serious infections in humans. 

We might wash our hands every couple of hours and shower daily — but our pets are more likely to roll around in the mud outside and consider other animals’ feces a tasty snack. As a veterinary microbiologist, I’ll admit that I sometimes drop the ball as well. My cat sleeps in my bed nearly every night, and kitty cuddles are heart-warming enough to temporarily make me lose sight of the fact that she probably licked her butt 10 minutes earlier. 

No matter how cute our animal amigos are, you shouldn’t just #WashYourHands after using the bathroom, before eating and preparing food, and before and after tending to sick humans. Hand hygiene matters around pets, too, and skipping it could give you an itsy-bitsy bonus you really didn’t want. 

Not the pets you wanted: The bustling world of microorganisms living right under your nose

It would be an understatement to say that we don’t live in a sterile environment. Billions upon billions of microscopic beings — bacteria, fungi, viruses, and parasites — surround us all the time. Though we can’t even see them, they spend their lives near, on, and in us.  

Some of those organisms don't interact with us at all. From others, we can benefit. We wouldn’t want to live without the fungi and bacteria that give us cheese, beer, wine, or yogurt, and couldn’t live without the billions of "good" intestinal bacteria that help us digest food

Some microorganisms, however, attack us and make us sick. 

Because we didn’t know microorganisms dwelled among us for a very long time, we didn’t associate diseases with dirty hands, either — and the importance of handwashing only became clear by the mid 19th century.

Different microorganisms attack different hosts. Some pathogens are species-specific. Some bacteria will, for instance, attack humans but leave dogs well alone. Others cause disease in multiple species, allowing you and your cat to commiserate as you fall victim to the same ailment. Some microorganisms affect different hosts in the same way, while other pathogens only cause a mild infection in one species, while posing a deadly threat to another. 

Pets and other domestic animals can share tens of different diseases with humans — and while it would take multiple books to describe them all, learning about some of the most common and most dangerous ones should encourage pet owners everywhere to soap up a little more often after cuddling up with their companion animals. 

1. Toxoplasmosis

Toxoplasmosis is a disease caused by the parasite Toxoplasma gondii. This parasite can infect almost all warm-blooded animals, including humans. This parasite has two kinds of hosts. While it reproduces inside members of the felid family — including domestic cats — Toxoplasma forms cysts in the brains and muscles of other species it infects, laying dormant until it’s eaten by a cat or another animal. 

Humans can earn themselves a toxoplasmosis infection in multiple ways, but neglecting to wash your hands after cleaning kitty litter is the most common way. Infected cats' poop will contain parasitic cysts. After you get them on your hands, they can find their way into your system if you touch your lips or prepare food. 

The infection itself isn't dangerous for most people. You usually won’t experience anything worse than a mild fever and muscle aches, but immunocompromised people, like HIV patients or people who received organ transplants, might develop a more severe form of the disease. Toxoplasmosis is also dangerous for pregnant women, as it can cause fetal malformation and even miscarriage — the reason why expectant mothers are so often advised to steer clear of litter boxes.

Toxoplasmosis is one of the most common parasitic infections in the world, with up to 60 percent of the population reportedly testing positive for this infection in some regions.

2. Ringworm

Ringworm is a fungal skin infection that can cause itchy, red, scaling circles on the skin. As many as 40 different fungi can cause ringworm infections in humans, and many of them can strike our pets as well. The infection is easily spread — between humans, between animals, and from animals to humans. Although not dangerous, this condition causes discomfort and usually takes several weeks of treatment to heal.

3. Psittacosis

Psittacosis (in parrots), or ornithosis (in other bird species) are two different names for an infection caused by the bacteria Chlamydophila psittaci. An infected bird spreads the bacteria through feces and dried ocular and nasal discharge. Though the infection is primarily spread through inhalation, it takes both caution and good hygiene to prevent transmission.

If you live with birds, always wash your hands after cleaning their cage to cut your risk of infection — psittacosis is a serious disease that can lead to coma and death.

Now worried your feathered friend could have transmitted psittacosis to you? Dr Viren Kaul tweeted about the warning signs you may want to look out for, and said:​

Flu like symp + headaches + atypical PNA + hepatosplenomegaly + relative bradycardia (low HR despite fever)
PLUS
contact with “exotic birds” or “parrots”
=
PSITTACOSIS

Rx: Doxy Or tetracycline #BoardPrep2019

— Viren Kaul, MD (@virenkaul) November 19, 2019

4. Salmonellosis

Salmonellosis about tops the list of “poor handwashing” diseases. Salmonella bacteria can cause an infection in a large number of animals, including birds, reptiles, rodents, cats, and dogs. The infected animal excretes the bacteria via feces, and the dried feces often stay on their skin, fur, or in the terrarium where the animal is kept. Ingesting microscopic bits of infected poop can cause an infection in humans, especially in children and infants under the age of five. It is important to note that a lot of pets carry Salmonella without showing any symptoms. 

5. Echinococcosis

When I was a kid, I became totally terrified of this disease after watching a TV show about it. The thing that scared me most is that can go undetected for decades. Because I spent a lot of time in the countryside playing with cats and dogs, and this disease is spread by those animals, I naturally started worrying that I might be infected — so I started to wash my hands obsessively. 

This disease is caused by a very small tapeworm. In dogs and cats, it usually shows no symptoms, but animals shed the parasitic eggs in their feces. When an animal other than a dog or cat ingests these eggs, they eventually form large cysts inside the body. The cysts grow over years, sometimes even decades, like a balloon filled with liquid (sometimes even several liters) containing the form of the parasite that infects cats and dogs. 

As these cysts grow, they push the organs around them out of the way, potentially causing great damage. The cysts usually form on the liver or in the lungs, but they can develop in the brain and other organs too. Their rupture can cause life-threatening situations, and, in some cases (especially if the cyst developed in the brain), an operation to extract it isn't possible.

Wash your hands around pets: No excuses!

Research has indicated that most pet owners simply aren’t aware of the risks of these zoonotic infections companion animals can “share” with you.

You no longer have that excuse, but just in case you're not quite on board yet, the CDC's Emerging Infections division warns you that even your very own pet can pose a serious danger: 

Handwashing is one of the best ways to protect yourself from germs spread by animals – even your pets! Always wash your hands after handling animals, their food, or supplies. https://t.co/SEWEdYdqwZ #HandwashingAwarenessWeek #OneHealth pic.twitter.com/SiloZh4Wa3

— CDC Emerging Infections (@CDC_NCEZID) December 2, 2018

Wash your hands:

  • After cuddling your pets
  • After taking care of feces — cleaning your cat’s litter box or scooping your dog’s poop, for instance
  • After cleaning the enclosures of high-risk animals such reptiles and birds
  • After feeding your pet, if they snack on other animals like live mice or worms

Responsible pet care goes beyond hand hygiene, though, so also take your pet to the vet regularly, always clean small scratches your pet "gifts" you and see a doctor if you need to, and disinfect the surfaces your pet comes into contact with often. Keep litter boxes well away from your kitchen, and strongly consider keeping your cats indoors to reduce the risk they'll end up with real nasties. Don’t allow your dogs to go hunting for wild animals or eat garbage. 

Not only will you be reducing your own risk, you’ll be keeping your pets healthy, too.