Our pets are good for us, especially when we are sick. They calm and improve our moods, reduce our blood pressure and speed up our recovery from illness. However, if you are suffering from chronic disease or are immunocompromised (have a weakened or suppressed immune system), they can represent a worrying risk to your health. But, as long as you are careful, there is no need to send your best friend to the pound.
What to do to protect yourself when caring for your pet
A significant source of the infections that can pass from animal to human are from faeces or urine. So, you need to be extremely careful when cleaning up after your pet and ideally have someone else do it for you. If you do need to pooper scoop or clear out litter trays, always wear gloves and ensure you wash your hands thoroughly afterwards.
You also need to ensure you keep your pets in tip top condition. Regular worming is vital as many of the intestinal parasites our pets get can infect us too. In a household with an immunocompromised member, doing it monthly is best. You should also ensure they are treated against fleas and vaccinated regularly. Feed them on a good quality, commercially prepared pet food and avoid any raw type diets as these can spread infections. For cats, try to discourage hunting, often a collar with a bell is sufficient, but many doctors will advise keeping them as indoor pets.
It is also important to take your animals to the vet at the first sign of illness, particularly vomiting, diarrhoea, coughing and sneezing. Many of the bugs that cause these problems in our pets can also pass to us.
Being affectionate with our animals is a natural part of our relationship with them and there is nothing wrong with petting and allowing them onto your lap. However, discourage licking, especially directly on the face and avoid prolonged close contact, like sharing your bed. This is particularly relevant to children who often have very affectionate relationships with pets. They should be supervised closely when playing with them, educated on what not to allow and made to wash their hands every time they handle their animals.
You also need to be careful that your pets don't bite or scratch you. Even normal, healthy people can suffer severe infections from cat scratches. If they do break your skin, throughly wash the area and seek medical advice. Reduce the chances of problems by avoiding rough play, training them to not jump up for attention and regularly trimming their nails
Unusual pets can spread some quite serious conditions to immunocompromised people, particularly and if you own reptiles or birds it is important to be aware of them.
Reptiles are often infected with salmonella, even when well in themselves, and birds can be a significant reservoir of cryptococcosis and psittacosis, both of which are airborne respiratory illnesses and so are very easily spread. Many doctors advise rehoming birds if there is a sick person in the house because of these problems.
Not got a pet, but would like one? Vital points to remember
If you don't have a pet but are under treatment and would like one, you need to consider a few things carefully. Firstly, it is wise to avoid exotic pets or small animals like hamsters and gerbils. The latter are popular for children but they can carry infections that are easily passed on, even if they appear healthy, and it is more difficult to control the contact between them and their young owner.
If you fancy a dog or cat, chose an adult over a youngster, they will be more steady and predictable in their behaviour. If you adopt from a shelter, ensure as much as possible is known about their past, that they have been treated for parasites, vaccinated and cats should be tested clear for feline leukaemia and feline AIDS. These are not contagious to humans but weaken the cat's immune defences and mean they are more likely to pick up infections which could pass to you. Besides, one immunocompromised individual in the house is more than enough!
It is impossible to completely eliminate the chances of your pets passing some sort of parasite or illness on to you if you are immunosuppresed. However, the risks can be significantly decreased by ensuring they are kept in the best of health and you follow simple hygiene principles.
Ultimately it is a choice you must take for yourself and your family but the benefit our pets bring to us in terms of comfort, support and giving us a purpose when we are feeling poorly, cannot be underestimated.
Cat Henstridge, BVSc MRCVS, is a vet specialising in pets and is based in Sheffield, UK. She is passionate about her job and healing the animals in her care. She also loves to write about her experiences and pet health issues at catthevet.com.