Over 50% of households in Canada and the US have pets, and the numbers are probably similar in many other countries. Pets are often considered part of the family socially but we need to consider them part of the family biologically as well. It’s clear that diseases that be transmitted between people and pets – in both directions. Unfortunately, it’s also clear that physicians and vets don’t do a very good job talking to each other.
Pet contact (and animal contact, in general) should be part of the standard history obtained by any physician. In my perfect world, every medical record would include a permanent record of contact with pets or other animals. This information is potentially useful because certain diseases that are not a big issue for non-pet owners may need to be considered (or may be higher on the list of possibilities) in pet owners. Knowing about pet contacts up front could help speed up diagnosis and proper treatment.
I have a flock of rare breed sheep. The other day, I had to assist with a lambing. Contact with newborn lambs and fetal fluids is the main source of the organism Coxiella burnetti, which causes Q-fever. If I became infected, the illness would start off with vague signs like fever and malaise. If I went to a physician at that point, I’d probably be told to go home, rest and take anti-inflammatories as needed (the old "take two aspirin and call me in the morning" type thing). If the physician knew I had sheep, he/she might ask about the risk of exposure for Q-fever. Upon hearing that I had a high risk exposure a few days earlier, Q-fever would be considered right away and appropriate measures could be taken.
Also, as strange as it sounds, in my utopian world physicians would ask about pet health. Yes, it may seem strange if your doctor were to ask "So how are you doing today? And how’s your dog been feeling lately?" – but it might be important. Illness in your pet may be associated with illness in you or other members of your household. Knowing that a pet is sick might give some indication of that (a) certain disease(s) are more likely in a person. Also, if the sick pet has been to a veterinarian for testing, those results might be useful to the physician. There’s no guarantee that a pet and owner that are sick have the same thing, but a general principle of medicine is that a single cause is more likely than co-incidental independent problems.
Similar to the case of psittacosis in a pet store employee that I reported about recently, let’s say that you own a bird and it’s been sick for a week or so. It’s weak and not eating well. You then come down with a fever and cough – something that’s not uncommon. However, when your astute physician asks about the health of your pets, he/she gets concerned about the fact that your bird is sick. Your doctor contacts your bird’s veterinarian, and it becomes clear that the bird could be infected with Chlamydophila psittaci, the cause of psittacosis in people. Your doctor therefore puts psittacosis on top of the list of potential problems, and instead of telling you to go home and rest, he/she takes some blood samples to try to diagnose it the infection and may even start treatment right away. Because your physician identified a higher risk situation with your sick bird, you get prompt treatment, you start to feel better in 24 hours and it’s unlikely you’ll have any major problems. (The mortality rate from psittacosis is < 1% in people that are treated properly. If the diagnosis is missed, the mortality rate increases to 20%, and you also run the risk of complications such as heart valve damage.)