How do pets and their owners mutually affect each other’s health? We all know about the joy and love pets bring into our lives. But what is often overlooked, are the health risks connected with pet keeping, like zoonotic diseases.
Health risks of pet ownership
Zoonotic diseases are infectious afflictions caused by viruses, bacteria, parasites or fungi and transmitted from animals to humans. Transmission is usually the result of direct contact, but can also occur indirectly (through objects or surfaces), vector-borne (by ticks, fleas or mosquitoes) or by faecal-oral infection (via contaminated food or water). According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in the US alone, tens of thousands of people are afflicted by zoonotic diseases every year – ranging from Lyme disease and West Nile virus to E. coli and salmonellosis.
Studies on the awareness of zoonotic diseases show that, although most pet owners are generally aware of the risks, there are definitely knowledge gaps. A 2014 study by Sandhu and Singh, conducted in the city of Ithaca, New York, revealed a serious lack of understanding on the subject of vector-borne diseases. Many pet owners underestimate the importance of regular deworming and prophylactic flea and tick control.
Similar attitudes among pet owners in The Netherlands were found in a study by Overgaauw and others in 2009. According to their data, 45% of cats are allowed on kitchen surfaces, 39% of dog owners never clean up the faeces of their dogs and only 15% of dog owners and 8% of cat owners always wash their hands after contact with their animals.
Sandhu and Singh also revealed the “lack of practice among physicians to discuss zoonotic diseases with their clients”. Respondents listed veterinarians as their primary source of information on zoonotic diseases, followed by friends and relatives, while none mentioned their family doctors. Physicians,it seems, are primarily focused on their patient’s symptoms and rarely take the opportunity to educate pet owners on zoonotic diseases. Or maybe they themselves are not – sufficiently – aware of the connections between human and animal health.
Health benefits outweigh health risks
Nevertheless, it seems that the health benefits of pet keeping outweigh the health risks. There are numerous scientifically proven health effects of owning a pet, such as the reduction of blood pressure, triglyceride and cholesterol levels, improved immunity, anxiolytic and antidepressant effects, increased physical activity, improved diabetes control and a better overall health.
Interestingly, companion animals and people living together share similar gut microbiota, microbe populations living in our intestines. People, especially babies, living in households with a dog, apparently have microbiotas that contribute to the reduction of allergies and asthma. And if we consider the fact that gut microbiota also affects various brain functions, the human-animal bond becomes even more captivating.
An increasing amount of data confirms the beneficial effects of pets on conditions like autism, posttraumatic stress disorder, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Not just service dogs or therapy dogs, but normally trained family pets as well, can be of great help to children with developmental problems. In general, companion dogs can support a child’s physical and psychological development.
The importance of responsible pet ownership
It is clear how pets can contribute to improved health and longevity in their owners, but only on the essential condition of responsible pet ownership.Pet owners have the responsibility to protect their animal`s health, not just from infectious diseases, but also from lifestyle and environmental influences that can cause obesity, diabetes mellitus and cancer.
To put it more directly, pets are at great risk of their owners’ tendencies toward bad habits. Smoking, alcoholism, poor diet and lack of physical activity will lead to health deterioration of the whole family, companion animals included. The ‘One Health’ concept recognizes the interconnection between the health of people, animals and the environment, and the human- animal bond and diseases we share with our companion animals are an essential part of this perspective.
Responsible owners will provide their pets with all the appropriate prophylactic health care, nutrition physical activity and affection they need. They will be “the person their dog thinks they are”. And by being that person, they will be able to enjoy all the benefits of pet keeping for a long and joyful time.
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