Pasteurella multocida is a bacterium that’s commonly found in the mouths of dogs and cats. It’s a common cause of cat and dog bite infections in people, but can also be spread through close contact with pets (without bites). It’s logical to assume that the closer the contact, the greater the risk of transmission. A recent report in Clinical Infectious Diseases (Myers et al 2012) describes three people with life-threatening Pasteurella infections. A unique aspect was all three people got sick from nursing dying pets.

Case 1

  • A 55-year-old woman with sore throat, fever and difficulty swallowing was diagnosed with epiglottitis (inflammation of the epiglottis, a part of the throat region) and hospitalized. Pasteurella multocida was identified on a blood culture.  It was subsequently revealed that she had provided palliative care to her dying dog. As part of this, she was dropper-feeding the dog honey, and also eating honey with the dog from the same dropper.

Case 2

  • A 63-year-old woman with sore throat, difficulty swallowing and hoarseness was diagnosed with uvulitis (inflammation of a different part of the throat region) and narrowing of her airway. As with Case 1, P. multocida was isolated from her blood. Her cat had died six weeks earlier and she had "continuously held, caressed, hugged and kissed her cat during its last 7 days of life."

Case 3

  • A 66-year-old woman was hospitalized with fever, chills, cough and difficulty breathing. She had severe pneumonia and P. multocida was grown from a sample of respiratory secretions. Two weeks before she got sick, she had provided palliative care for her dying cat, by "holding, hugging, and kissing the head of the cat and allowing the cat to lick her hands and arms."

Fortunately all three women recovered from their infections, but the severity of disease is certainly a concern. As is common, there was no attempt to see whether the implicated pets actually carried the same Pasteurella multocida strain as the owners, but here the authors at least had a good excuse, since all of the pets had died before the owners got sick.

There are some interesting points in the Discussion section of the paper.

"Our 3 patients’ histories of having recently provided palliative pet care to their dying animals were obtained only after P. multocida was identified in cultures and only after subsequent detail-oriented, animal contact histories were obtained."

  • Pet contact (or animal contact in general) is still not asked enough by physicians investigating unknown illnesses. It’s unclear whether it would have made a difference in these cases, but knowing more and knowing it earlier can help speed the path to the right diagnosis. Here, pet contact was only considered after a pet-associated bacterium was identified.

"Simply asking whether or not the patient had a pet would not have uncovered the defined association of these respiratory illnesses with palliative pet care. The patient with P. multocida uvulitis even denied having a pet (it had died 6 weeks previously) and only admitted to having provided palliative pet care when asked specifically if she had any animal contacts in the past 3 months."

  • This shows some of the challenges and how care must be taken when asking about pet contact. Simply asking "Do you have a pet?" doesn’t cover it.

"Only diligence and very detail-oriented, pet-related histories will likely uncover further patients with invasive P. multocida infection related to the pet owner’s provision of palliative pet care to dying animals."

  • This shouldn’t be focused on palliative pet care, since that’s a minor component of pet contact. Many other people have close contact with their pets, even when the pets are healthy. It’s something that should be considered at all times.