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Health, Beauty & Fashion

Getting sick from your pet

Pet owners can catch parasites or infections from their animals
The Straits Times - April 5, 2014
By: Bryna Singh
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Getting sick from your pet Senior veterinarian nurse Pek Liwei (left) and veterinarian Cathy Chan work with pet owners to prevent the spread of pet-to-human diseases. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

The recent news that four people in Britain have caught tuberculosis from their cats may have raised some concern among pet owners here. But veterinarians say there is no cause for alarm, as the risk of this happening in Singapore is extremely low.

The cases in Britain, which were reported last week, are said to be the first ever recorded incidents of cats passing the disease to humans. The infection chain can be traced to the cats contracting bovine tuberculosis, after hunting wildlife and rodents that had been involved in a bovine tuberculosis outbreak.

Dr Brian Loon, 32, principal veterinary surgeon at Amber Veterinary Practice in Siglap, says: "It is generally considered rare for humans to get tuberculosis from their pets, as this condition is rare in pets, particularly in Singapore."

This is because pets here have little interaction with cows, badgers and other wildlife, unlike the cats that made headlines, which had been out and about. Veterinarians say animals who live in the wild are more likely to catch the disease as they are in free-roaming environments where the chances of trans- species diseases being spread are higher.

In any case, Dr Simon Quek, 40, veterinarian at Mount Pleasant Animal Medical Centre's Clementi branch, says: "Most Singaporeans are vaccinated against the disease anyway."

Tuberculosis is a bacterial infection that affects the lungs and also the circulatory and central nervous systems. The disease is spread by prolonged contact with infectious people through the droplets they exhale.

Symptoms include a persistent cough, sudden weight loss and coughing blood up. Treatment with a cocktail of drugs usually takes six to nine months.

While the risk of contracting the disease from pets is very low, veterinarians say they do see cases of other infections and zoonotic diseases, or diseases that are spread from animals to human.

The most common infection they see here that is passed from pet to human is ringworm, followed by scabies and allergies caused by flea bites.

Dr Loon says he sees about one case of a pet with ringworm every month. Ringworm, which is a type of fungal infection, can affect a variety of animals. These include dogs, cats, rabbits and guinea pigs. The symptoms appear as a red rash on the animals' skin, usually with hair loss around the affected area. Humans will sport a similar rash.

"Ringworm is prevalent in Singapore due to the humid environment, which encourages the growth of ringworm spores on the skin of humans and animals," says Dr Loon.

When an animal is infected, it sheds the fungal spores on its skin. When human skin comes into contact with these spores, either from direct contact with the infected animal's skin or from spores in the environment, these fungal spores can cause a similar ringworm infection on humans, he adds.

Besides ringworm, the scabies parasite that gets onto animals such as rabbits, dogs and cats can also cause rashes in humans, says Dr Cathy Chan, 35, a veterinarian at The Animal Doctors in Ang Mo Kio.

"Scabies causes extreme itch and usually shows up on a human's inner thighs and inner arms," she says.

Another parasite is the flea, says Dr Quek. "The flea hops onto your pet who brings it home, which then lays eggs in your environment and ends up biting not just your pet but you too," he says. "Fleas don't care if it's animal blood or human blood - they just want blood."

He recalls a pet owner who had taken her cat to see him a few years ago. When he diagnosed her cat with flea-bite allergies, the owner complained about bites on her skin as well.

"She thought they were mosquito bites. Her flea-ridden cat had been sleeping with her on the same bed," says Dr Quek. "That pet owner ended up fumigating her whole house."

Veterinarians say pet owners' personal hygiene is key in reducing the chances of them catching infections or diseases from their pets.

Dr Chan says the most susceptible groups are the very young, the very old and those whose immune system is compromised, such as people undergoing chemotherapy or those with HIV.

"These people don't have to get rid of their pets but they have to practise good personal hygiene," she says.

Veterinarians discourage prolonged close contact with pets such as sleeping with them as this greatly increases the risk of an infection being passed from pet to human. They also encourage home owners to wash their hands thoroughly, especially after clearing their pets' litter boxes, and disinfecting a pet's toileting areas thoroughly every day.

Dr Loon says that when pets are infected with intestinal parasites such as toxoplasma, they shed eggs in their stools.

"Humans can get infected if these organisms are consumed orally, such as when the pet passes stools and licks its anus, then licks its owner's face or mouth. Or the pet licks its fur and the human touches the fur and then eats without washing his hands," he says.

For intestinal parasites, humans can end up getting diarrhoea, or the intestinal worm larvae can migrate to under the human skin or to other organs. In very rare cases, this can cause cysts to develop in the body.

Veterinarians say some gynaecologists advise pregnant women to keep away from their pets in case they are infected by intestinal parasites such as toxoplasma.

Dr Quek says this is a "knee-jerk reaction", and adds that pregnant women should not be "misled" by such advice. "It is more important to not eat raw food - you can get intestinal parasites from consuming raw meat or fish," he says.

Dr Chan agrees. "When I was pregnant, I lived with my cats. It all goes back to practising good personal hygiene."

Veterinarians say that the moment they diagnose an animal as having an infection or a zoonotic disease, they will ask the owner if they have seen signs of a rash or infection on themselves, and advise them to seek treatment if so.

Pet owners, however, are not the only ones who are susceptible to various zoonotic diseases and other infections.

Dr Chan says she has caught ringworm about five times from the animals she handles, and contracted scabies once.

"I just deal with it. It is part of the job," she says.

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