Campylobacter bacteria are important causes of disease in people. Many Campylobacter species exist, and these different species vary quite a bit in their ability to cause disease in people and animals. Campylobacter jejuni is one of the most common causes of diarrhea in people worldwide, and is most commonly associated with contaminated food. However, a few studies have reported that having pets (especially pets with diarrhea) is also a risk factor for Campylobacter jejuni infection.
Another Campylobacter species that may be of concern is Campylobacter upsaliensis. This species is primarily associated with dogs and cats, and a large percentage of healthy dogs and cats may be shedding this bacterium in their stool at any time. It doesn’t seem to be a cause of disease in dogs and cats, but it may be an important and overlooked cause of disease in people. One study from the US reported that C. upsaliensis was the 2nd most common Campylobacter strain found in people with diarrhea (after C. jejuni). However, the true role of this species is unclear, partly because of common laboratory testing methods. Culture is the main method used to diagnose infection with Campylobacter, but this bacterium can be difficult to grow in the lab. Usually, culture media for Campylobacter contain antibiotics to inhibit other better/faster growing bacteria. Unfortunately, C. upsaliensis is often inhibited by these antibiotics, so it’s likely to be missed in these cases even if it is there. Therefore, we might be underestimating the role of this Campylobacter species in diarrhea. This is an critical issue to investigate because C. upsaliensis is so common in dogs and cats, and it’s important to determine what role pets play in human disease.
Avoiding Campylobacter infection involves some basic steps: avoid contact with feces, take care when handling diarrhea from pets, wash your hands regularly after handling pets and always wash your hands thoroughly after any contact with feces. Make sure your physician knows you have pets. In particular, if you have a pet with diarrhea or have recently acquired a new pet (especially a puppy or kitten), make sure Campylobacter infection is considered if you get diarrhea. Most infections are mild and go away on their own but some require specific treatment.
More information about Campylobacter can be found on the Worms & Germs Resources page.
Image credit: CDC/ Dr. Patricia Fields, Dr. Collette Fitzgerald