They're our best friends and our companions, there to offer a friendly paw or a lick on the face whenever we feel down in the dumps. We love our pets so much so that we share our homes -- and often our beds -- with them.
But the next time you get ready to curl up with your furriest friends, think about this: Your pets can carry a variety of creepy crawly critters that could make you sick. As they roam your yard or neighborhood, cats and dogs can pick up bacteria, fungi and a variety of bugs (ticks, mites and worms) that they can then pass on to you. These bugs can lead to a host of zoonotic diseases, or conditions that are passed from animals to humans. Sometimes your pets can even pick up germs from you and then return them.
This article will introduce you to some of the skin infections you can catch from your pets, and it will teach you some ways to prevent your best friend from giving you a nasty rash.
MRSA and Other Bacteria
You've probably heard about the dreaded MRSA infection, which has been spreading its way through hospitals and the general community. Thanks to the tiny Staphylococcus aureus (staph) bacteria, a simple cut can turn into a serious infection. What's worse, some staph infections don't respond to many common antibiotics.
Staph infections typically spread from human to human. You can pick one up if you share a personal item -- like a razor or towel -- with a friend who has the infection and you have an open wound. MRSA starts with small bumps that look like little pimples on the skin. If the infection isn't treated, it can lead to a deeper wound that can spread to the bloodstream and organs.
Humans also can catch MRSA from their cats and dogs, but only after these animals pick up the bacteria from us. Staphylococcus bacteria colonize in the animal's mouth. If that animal bites a person, the bacteria get into the person's body through the open bite wound.
Staphylococcus isn't the only kind of bacteria that can be transmitted through an animal bite. About 30 different bacteria can spread from pets to humans, including Pasteurella, Streptococcus,Fusobacterium, and Capnocytophaga, all of which can cause serious infections.
To ensure that you don't get bitten and wind up with an infection -- staph or otherwise --it's best to avoid any dogs or cats you don't know. If you do get bitten, wash the wound thoroughly with soap and water, or an antiseptic. Call your doctor, especially if the wound is deep. You might need antibiotics to treat it.
You might have heard of a condition called ringworm. Despite its name, ringworm isn't an actual worm. This skin condition is actually caused by a type of fungus called a dermatophyte.
Ringworm is very contagious. It can pass quickly from person to person in close quarters, like locker rooms or day care centers. The fungus also can spread from pets (mainly cats) to people.
If you do catch ringworm, you'll notice red, possibly ring-shaped rashes on your skin. Dermatophytes like warm, moist areas, so you may find these itchy, scaly rashes on areas of your body that tend to sweat, such as the groin area (where it's known as jock itch), feet (also called athlete's foot) and scalp. Ringworm on the scalp can create bald patches along with the rash.
You can catch ringworm if you touch an infected animal's skin or fur. Dogs and cats can carry ringworm, especially when they're young.
There is a ringworm vaccine available for cats, but it's not the most effective preventive measure. If you notice any patches of missing hair on your pet's skin, take the animal to the vet for a screening.
If you get ringworm, applying a topical antifungal cream or lotion will usually clear up the fungus. When topical medications aren't strong enough, your doctor can prescribe you an oral antifungal drug.
Cheyletiellosis and Scabies
Mites are tiny, spiderlike creatures that hail from the tick family. They can also spread disease as they feed from the blood of their hosts.
The mites that cause cheyletiellosis, or cheyletiella mange, tend to hang out in kennels and pet shops, where pets can pick them up and bring them home with their owners. The result is a red, bumpy rash and white flakes that appear to be moving (which is why cheyletiellosis is sometimes known as "walking dandruff"). Cheyletiella mites can also infect humans, producing a rash on the arms, trunk, and buttocks.
Washing your pet weekly for six to eight weeks with a pyrethrin shampoo (the type of shampoo that's also used to kill lice) should take care of the mites. Make sure that you also spray all pet bedding. Once you've treated your pet, your rash should clear up.
The Sarcoptes scabiei mite causes sarcoptic mange (better known as scabies in humans). When these microscopic menaces get under the skin of your pet, they can lead to hair loss and some serious itching. Small red pustules erupt on the animal's skin. Because the dog or cat is itching so much, these pustules can get infected.
If your pet's mites jump to you or another human, they will cause a very itchy, pimply rash that can last for weeks. To treat the rash, your doctor can prescribe an ointment or cream called a scabicide to kill the mites. Also wash all of your towels, bedding and clothes in hot water or seal them in a plastic bag for at least 72 hours.
You can treat sarcoptic mange in your pet with an organophosphate dip, but this procedure isn't very pleasant. To prevent your dog or cat from getting sarcoptic mange in the first place, use a monthly medication that protects against the disease. Also treat your pet's bedding, because these hardy mites can survive for several days without their pet host.
When hookworms sink their tiny teeth into the wall of your pet's intestine and start feeding, these parasites can lead to serious gastrointestinal distress, including severe diarrhea and vomiting, as well as anemia. Some animals can even die from a hookworm infection.
Your pet can pick up hookworms from eating food, drinking water or nosing around in soil that contains hookworm larvae. Once inside your pet's intestines, hookworms will feed on its blood. They lay eggs that pass out of the animal in its feces. If you come in contact with those larvae, you can get infected, too.
Certain kinds of hookworms can burrow their way into human skin as well, causing a skin disease called cutaneous larval migrans or "creeping eruption." This infection appears as a red, itchy rash on the skin. If you get a more severe infection, you may develop symptoms similar to those of your pet, such as abdominal pain, diarrhea and anemia.
In dogs, hookworm is treated with many of the same de-worming medications used to kill roundworms. Typically, these are taken monthly as a preventive measure. These medications contain ingredients like ivermectin and pyrantel pamoate.
Humans rarely get hookworm in the U.S. It's more common in poorer countries. Just in case, it's a good idea to wash your hands with soap and water if you have any contact with your pet's feces. If you do get hookworm, your doctor can prescribe a drug like albendazole or pyrantel pamoate to treat it.
Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
Most people are probably well aware that a tick's destructiveness bears no relation to its miniscule size. These eight-legged critters attach themselves to your dog and pass along bacteria as they feed. One type of bacteria ticks carry is called Rickettsia rickettsii. These bacteria transmit the disease Rocky Mountain spotted fever (which -- despite its name and area of origin -- has made its way to both U.S. coasts).
Once inside your pet's circulatory system, Rickettsia rickettsii multiply quickly. Your dog may develop symptoms such as diarrhea, vomiting, red eyes, vision problems or bleeding.
Dogs can pass Rocky Mountain spotted fever to humans, but not directly. The tick that rode into your house on your dog also has to bite you in order for you to become infected. You can also get the condition if you come into contact with the tick while trying to remove it from your dog and you have an open wound.
In people, Rocky Mountain spotted fever typically causes a signature red, spotted rash. Other symptoms include a high fever (between 102 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit, or 38.9 to 40 degrees Celsius), joint swelling, nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath and possible neurological problems. The disease can become serious enough to require hospitalization, but antibiotics can cure both pets and their owners.
To prevent this potentially dangerous disease, check your pet -- and yourself -- for ticks whenever you return from a walk in a wooded area. Spray yourself with an insect repellant containing the ingredient DEET on your skin, or one containing permethrin on your clothes before going out. Wear a long-sleeved shirt and long pants, and tuck your pant legs into your socks. Also make sure your dog is up-to-date on its flea and tick control medication.
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Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Centers for Disease Control. "Community-Associated MRSA Information for the Public." (April 29, 2010)http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dhqp/ar_mrsa_ca_public.html
- Centers for Disease Control. "Hookworm Infection." (April 29, 2010)http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dpd/parasites/hookworm/factsht_hookworm.htm
- Centers for Disease Control. "Ringworm and Animals." (April 29, 2010)http://cdc.gov/healthypets/diseases/ringworm.htm
- Centers for Disease Control. "Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever." (April 30, 2010)http://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/diseases/rockymountain.htm
- Centers for Disease Control. "Scabies." (April 30, 2010)http://www.cdc.gov/scabies/
- Chailleux, N. and Pardis, M. "Efficacy of selamectin in the treatment of naturally acquired cheyletiellosis in cats." Canadian Veterinary Journal. October 2002; vol. 43: pp. 767-770.
- Medical News Today. "MRSA Transmission Between Dogs/Cats And Humans: An Increasing Problem." June 22, 2009. (April 29, 2010.)http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/154840.php.
- Merck Manual. "Hookworm Infection." (Accessed April 30, 2010)http://www.merck.com/mmhe/sec17/ch196/ch196i.html
- Nash, Holly. "Hookworm Infection, Prevention & Treatment in Dogs." Pet Education.com. (Accessed April 30, 2010)http://www.peteducation.com/article.cfm?c=2&aid=747
- Smith, Michael. "Family Pets May Harbor MRSA, Other Nasties." ABC News. June 22, 2009. (AccessedApril 30, 2010) http://abcnews.go.com/Health/Germs/story?id=7884755&page=1
- Stoppler, Melissa Conrad. "Catching Ringworm from Pets." MedicineNet. (Accessed April 30, 2010)http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=82553
- University of Georgia. "Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever in Dogs." (Accessed April 30, 2010)http://www.vet.uga.edu/VPP/clerk/otis/
- WebMD. "Cheyletiellosis (Walking Dandruff) in Dogs." (Accessed April 30, 2010)http://pets.webmd.com/dogs/cheyletiellosis-walking-dandruff-in-dogs
- WebMD. "Ringworm of the Skin - Topic Overview." (Accessed April 29, 2010)http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/tc/ringworm-of-the-skin-topic-overview