There was an interesting article in USA Today about the increasing recognition of the positive role that pets can play in patients recovering from serious disease, and how contact with pets can sometimes conflict with disease transmission concerns in these same patients. The attitude towards pet ownership among physicians is highly variable – some recognize the strong human-animal bond and its positive effects, while others see pets as unnecessary infectious disease risks. The infectious disease concerns are heightened in patients with compromised immune systems, to the point that sometimes people are told to get rid of their pets if they are severely immunocompromised.  However, more and more pet owners, veterinarians and physicians are beginning to question if this is truly the best approach.

The USA Today article describes the experiences of a cancer patient whose greyhounds were "banished to a caregiver on doctors’ orders". Considering she was at high risk for (potentially fatal) infectious disease because of chemotherapy, bone marrow transplant, stem cell transplant and immunosuppressive drugs, it’s not surprising that there was concern about the pets. After researching the risks, and measures she could take to reduce those risks, the patient convinced her doctors that the risks from her dogs were not as great as the benefits from having them around, and so the dogs returned home. While everyone’s relationship with their pets is different, the patient felt that the return of her dogs was an important step in her recovery, stating "There’s no question that having (the dogs) with me these past few months made a huge difference in my recovery".

Infectious disease transmission from pets to people is certainly a real issue, and it is of particular concern in people with weakened immune systems. There is not, nor will there ever be, a "no-risk" pet. Every contact with a pet, just like every contact with another person, carries with it some degree of risk of disease transmission. What needs to be considered is the trade-off, the risks versus the benefits. In some people, the risks are greater than the benefits because of the severity of disease, type of pet, the person’s ability (or more likely inability) to interact with the pet. In other people, especially those who have a very strong bond with the animal, the positive social and emotional benefits of pet ownership may greatly outweigh the associated disease risks. The article contains a great quote from Dr. Ray Pais, a pediatric hematology/oncology specialist, saying "Our young patients have already given up so much, I see no reason at that moment for them to also lose the dog."

People that have compromised immune systems need to have a serious discussion with their physician, veterinarian and family about the best thing to do with their pets while they are sick. While there is very little research in this area, taking a few common sense precautions should reduce the risks of disease transmission. These include:

  • Avoiding contact with stool
  • Frequent handwashing
  • Preventing licking of the person by the pet
  • Proper training to reduce the risk of bites and scratches
  • Keeping cats indoors
  • Following a good preventive medicine program for the pet

More information about Immunocompromised Pet Owners will be available soon on the Worms & Germs Resources page. The CDC also has useful information on its website about this topic.

Thanks to Dr. Doug Powell of Barfblog for forwarding this article.