What pet owners need to know about sharing a bed with a pet
(zoo-en-nah-tick) diseases, also known as zoonoses, are caused by infectious diseases that are shared between animals and people. Major modern diseases such as Ebola virus disease and salmonellosis are zoonoses.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) it is estimated that approximately 50 per cent of pet owners share their bed with their pet. If you are in this group of pet owners, you’ve likely experienced the mental and emotional benefits of sharing this space in the home with your dog or cat firsthand. Pets provide comfort and a sense of security to many. But have you ever thought about the implications of welcoming a pet under the covers from a health and infectious disease perspective? Is it safe? Are there negative consequences? Are precautions necessary? Do the benefits outweigh the risks?
While sharing your bed with a pet is generally quite acceptable, there are some risks and potential dangers pet owners should understand. We sat down with Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) infectious disease expert and professor Dr. Scott Weese to learn what all pet owners should know about sharing such close quarters with a dog or a cat in the home.
“There is never a ‘no risk’ situation. I can’t ever say that your dog or cat won’t make you sick,” says Weese, who specializes in understanding zoonotic diseases, infectious diseases that can be transferred between animals and people. “But, the overall risks are very low, especially with dogs and cats, and healthy owners. The challenge with educating people about zoonotic disease involves walking the line between raising awareness and talking people off the ledge at the same time.”
Pathogens and parasites can be bad, but they are also critical for our immune system, the body’s protector which is made up of cells, tissues and organs that work together to fight infectious organisms.
“It’s all about lessening risk,” Weese states. “There are a number of risks pet owners can easily manage on their own: ideally, pets in the household receive regular preventive veterinary care; everyone in the home uses good handwashing practices; pets are fed properly; and when disease arises, it is medically treated. Whether we share our bed, home or life in general with a pet, we are talking about the same sanitary concepts and habits,” Weese says.
WHAT TO CONSIDER WHEN INVITING A PET INTO YOUR BED.
LIFE STAGE OF YOUR PET.
Generally, dogs and cats are lower risk pets. However, puppies can be higher risk than an adult dog because they are more likely to shed parasites and certain bacteria. Puppies are also known to bite and scratch more often.
When bringing an exotic pet into the home, pet owners should be made aware that some species are prone to carrying certain diseases. Reptiles such as turtles, snakes and lizards frequently carry Salmonella and are known to be much higher risk pets.
YOUR AGE AND YOUR HEALTH MATTER.
“Just like animals, there are groups of people who are higher risk too. Children younger than five, adults over the age of 65, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems (immunocompromised) are in the high-risk category. People who are undergoing chemotherapy or bone marrow transplant recipients are exceptionally high-risk,” says Weese. However, ‘high risk’ doesn’t mean people shouldn’t own or have contact with pets. It means the risks need to be evaluated and measures taken to reduce those risks.
WHAT ABOUT UNDER THE COVERS?
It is important to note that on the bed and in the bed (underneath the covers) are two different things, especially when you consider the following scenarios provided by Weese. What is the risk of a healthy 20-year-old sharing their bed with their dog? Probably close to zero. In comparison, what is the risk of an 85-year-old diabetic patient with foot ulcers doing the same? There is likely higher risk in this situation, especially if the pet sleeps under the covers at the person’s feet. Close contact for six to ten hours a night under the covers together could result in a problem for the pet owner or for the dog.
COULD YOU BE THE ONE MAKING YOUR PET SICK?
It goes both ways. “We focus on bugs that go from animals to people, and that’s important. However, things go both ways. In particular, we see antibiotic resistant bacteria moving from people to their pets. People with infections or that are higher risk of carrying certain pathogens (such as resistant bacteria) should take measures to reduce the risk to their pets, such as handwashing.”
WHAT ARE THE MAIN HEALTH CONCERNS WHEN SHARING A BED WITH A PET?
“Odds of an infection are low overall, but transmission of bacteria during close, prolonged contact is always of some concern,” Weese explains. “Infection is more likely in people who have wounds, any type of skin lesion, surgical incision or foot ulcer, in addition to people who are generally in a high-risk category due to their age or medical status,” he adds. If the dog is in a similar category or has an active infection such as a skin infection, the risks probably increase further.
Each situation should be assessed on a case-by-case basis, Weese recommends.
Pet owners should engage both their physicians and veterinarians in the conversation if they have concerns. Weese’s research has shown that physicians may not always ask patients about pets in the home and veterinarians may not necessarily be comfortable discussing human health topics, which further drives home the need for owner education.
“With education and awareness, we can greatly reduce risks so that the benefits of pet ownership outweigh the costs,” Weese says.
Dr. Scott Weese is an OVC Pet Trust-funded researcher. Visit www.wormsandgermsblog.com to access Dr. Weese’s fact sheet bank about infectious diseases written specifically for pet owners, veterinary professionals and children.
Read more in the spring / summer issue of Best Friends Magazine.