A furry dilemma: Sleep with your pet, risk catching his bugs
January 22nd, 2011
05:41 PM ET

A furry dilemma: Sleep with your pet, risk catching his bugs

Cuddling with pets puts you at risk of catching some icky bugs, warns a report published in the February issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases, the public health journal of the Centers for Disease Control.

Some pet owners sleep in bed with their animals as a “source of psychological comfort,” but the report warns that “pets can bring a wide range of zoonotic pathogens into our environment.”  Zoonotic pathogens are infectious agents that can be transmitted between animal and humans. We'll just call them icky bugs.

The probability of getting sick from sharing your bed with your pet is extremely rare, said lead author, Bruno Chomel, a professor of zoonoses at University of California Davis. But he warned that children and people who have compromised immune system should be aware of the risks.

“It can happen,” he said.  “It’s rare when it happens and it can be bad. It’s not told to panic people or scare people, but to be aware there are things that can happen.”

Chomel and co-author Ben Sun looked through published literature about cases in which people's illnesses correlated with sleeping, kissing or being licked by pets.

Some of  examples are startling:

- A man had a dog sleep under the covers with him.  The dog licked his hip replacement wound and the owner got meningitis.

- A 9-year-old boy slept in bed with a flea-infested cat and got the bubonic plague in 1974 in New Mexico.

- A newborn was sickened with meningitis.  The pet cat had stolen the baby’s pacifier and had been toying with it.

- A 44-year-old woman developed meningitis and admitted that she was “regularly kissing the dog’s face and feeding it by transferring food mouth to mouth.”

In a survey from the American Kennel Club, 21 percent of dog owners said they regularly slept with their dogs.

Chomel said he’s not trying to overstate the risks.

“It’s a matter of common sense,” he said.  “I never said, ‘Don’t have the pet in the bedroom.’ I’m saying, if you put the pet on the bed or in the bed, there are consequences.”

He said that cats and dogs catch fleas- that owners don't always catch.

“If you have a pet that’s well taken care of and sees a vet on regular basis, is properly dewormed, properly vaccinated and well-taken care of, that lowers the risk quite a lot,” Chomel said.

Take precautions like washing your hands especially before meal times and consider whether you want your pet to sleep with your child, he said.

The paper mentioned that having pets have been shown to bring psychological support, friendship and health practices like walking and reducing stress.  But the report is not balanced, said Patricia McConnell, a certified animal behaviorist and adjunct professor in zoology at the University of Wisconsin.

“I think it’s important to read this particular report keeping in mind a balance,” she said.  “We’re always balancing the benefits of social interactions -  whether it’s four-legged or two-legged.”

If you sleep with a flea or tick-infested animal - sure, there are risks.

“It’s common sense to all of us that there are dangers associated with the world around us from sleeping with a human to kissing your dog, to tripping on your bedroom slippers which is a common cause of emergency room visits,” McConnell said.

Pets have a therapeutic effect on humans. Some research suggests children who grow up with pets can build more robust immune systems.  Being around animals, petting and touching them increases levels of oxytocin – a  feel-good hormone.  It can lower stress-causing hormone like cortisol, she said.

“In that sense, there is value in being reminded there are dangers in interacting with our pets,” she said.  “I’m troubled by the report, as written. It’s not comprehensive. I don’t want people to panic- when they see this - this would be a disservice.”

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.