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Close pet contact can bring health problems

April 11, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
Do you let your cat or dog curl up with you on your bed? You're not alone -- more than half of all pet owners say they allow the family pet to sleep with them. But if you do there are some things you should know so that both you and your pet stay healthy.

In Chrissy Carew's nightly ritual, she and her five dogs all bunk up tight for the night together.

"I consider them full-fledged members of our family," said Carew.

A new survey shows 56 percent of dog owners in the United States let their dogs sleep next to them. Researchers point out that could lead to some health problems.

"Sometimes we forget that they aren't our children. They are pets and also they have their own life and there are diseases that can be transmitted," said veterinary Dr. Bruno Chomel.

Chomel is one of the lead authors of a study just published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Researchers checked people who had close contact with their dogs and cats, either sleeping next to their pet or allowing their animal to lick them.

Experts found that in rare instances, some pet owners caught illnesses like rabies, bacteria-resistant infections, meningitis and "cat scratch fever," and much more common diseases like ringworm.

Chomel says people most at risk to catch an illness from a pet are the young and the elderly, as well as those who have a weaker immune system.

"You always think, 'It's never going to happen to me,' but when it happens to you it can be very sad and very bad," said Chomel.

Eric Garrison knows it can happen. He caught a terrible case of ringworm on his foot. The culprit was his roommate's cat.

"The experience to me was pretty awful," said Garrison.

Garrison says the ringworm changed the type of close contact he'll have with pets. "It certainly taught me a lesson."

Veterinarians say pet owners who de-worm their cats and dogs regularly can prevent those infections.

One other important thing owners can do: Keep your dog or cat "flea-free," because fleas can bite and spread disease.

"Any time human beings have close associations with animals, including their pets, there's some risk, but it's very, very small," said Dr. William Shaffner, an infectious-disease expert.

Schaffner says his cat sleeps with him and these study results won't change that.

Chrissy Carew makes sure she keeps her pets very clean and plans to continue her doggie sleepovers, despite the survey findings.

"My pets will continue to sleep with my husband and I forever and ever," said Carew. "We love it."

It should be emphasized that some of the health issues mentioned are rare, and that the most common problems transmitted through pets are things like ringworm.