A little knowledge can be a bad thing. We see that with zoonotic diseases. Awareness is great. However, a little bit of awareness can be a problem if it’s enough make people paranoid but not enough to help them understand the real risks. This can lead to excessive and illogical responses (often ending with "…get rid of the cat").
Sound guidelines for preventing infections written by authoritative groups help a lot. An example of that is the recently updated Guidelines for the prevention and treatment of opportunistic infections in HIV-infected adults and adolescents. As a collaborative set of guidelines from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Institutes of Health, and the HIV Medicine Association of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, it carries a lot of weight – as it should.
It’s a monster of a document of 416 pages. Pet contact gets a little bit of room and probably just the right amount. Enough to say "it’s something to think about," "we’ve considered the issues" and "here are some basic things to consider.”
Here are their specific recommendations:
Hand-washing also should be recommended in association with the following activities: after handling pets or other animals, gardening or having other contact with soil; before preparing food or eating; and before and after sex (BIII).
HIV-infected individuals—particularly those with CD4 counts <200 cells/μL [i.e. people who have advanced disease]—should avoid direct contact with diarrhea or stool from pets (BIII).
Gloves should be worn when handling feces or cleaning areas that might have been contaminated by feces from pets (BIII).
HIV-infected individuals also should avoid other sources of Cryptosporidium oocysts as much as possible (BIII). These include working directly with people with diarrhea; with farm animals such as cattle and sheep; and with domestic pets that are very young or have diarrhea. If exposure is unavoidable, gloves should be used and practices for good hand hygiene observed.
The letters and numbers indicate the strength of evidence. B means there’s moderate evidence supporting the recommendation and III means it’s based mainly or exclusively on expert opinion, not research trials.
Note that nowhere does it say "get rid of the pet" or "avoid contact with animals altogether." Rather, it endorses the use of basic hygiene practices and common sense. In reality, all these recommendations could apply to any individual, not just people with HIV infection.
The preamble to the pet section includes a great statement:
Health-care providers should advise HIV-infected persons of the potential risk posed by pet ownership. However, they should be sensitive to the psychological benefits of pet ownership and should not routinely advise HIV-infected persons to part with their pets. Specifically, providers should advise HIV-infected patients of the following precautions.
…and those precautions are:
HIV-infected persons should avoid direct contact with stool from pets or stray animals. Veterinary care should be sought when a pet develops diarrheal illness. If possible, HIV-infected persons should avoid contact with animals that have diarrhea.
When obtaining a new pet, HIV-infected patients should avoid animals aged <6 months (or <1 year for cats) and specifically animals with diarrhea. Because the hygienic and sanitary conditions in pet-breeding facilities, pet stores, and animal shelters vary, patients should be cautious when obtaining pets from these sources. Stray animals should also be avoided, and specifically those with diarrhea.
Gloves should always be worn when handling feces or cleaning areas that might have been contaminated by feces from pets. Patients should wash their hands after handling pets and also before eating. Patients, especially those with CD4 cell counts < 200 cells/μL should avoid direct contact with all animal feces to reduce the risk for toxoplasmosis, cryptosporidiosis, salmonellosis, campylobacteriosis, E. coli infection, and other infectious illnesses. HIV-infected persons should limit or avoid direct exposure to calves and lambs (e.g., farms, petting zoos). Paying attention to hand hygiene (i.e., washing hands with soap and water, or alcohol-based hand sanitizers if soap and water are unavailable) and avoiding direct contact with stool are important when visiting premises where these animals are housed or exhibited.
Patients should not allow pets, particularly cats, to lick patients’ open cuts or wounds and should take care to avoid any animal bites. Patients should wash all animal bites, animal scratches, or wounds licked by animals promptly with soap and water and seek medical attention. A course of antimicrobial therapy might be recommended if the wounds are moderate or severe, demonstrate crush injury and edema, involve the bones of a joint, involve a puncture of the skin near a joint, or involve a puncture of a joint directly.
Patients should be aware that cat ownership may under some circumstances increase their risk for toxoplasmosis and Bartonella infection, and enteric infections [although I’d argue data supporting a broad statement of cat ownership increasing those risks that are largely lacking]. Patients who elect to obtain a cat should adopt or purchase an animal aged >1 year and in good health to reduce the risk for cryptosporidiosis, Bartonella infection, salmonellosis, campylobacteriosis, and E. coli infection.
Litter boxes should be cleaned daily, preferably by an HIV-negative, non-pregnant person; if HIV-infected patients perform this task, they should wear gloves and wash their hands thoroughly afterward to reduce the risk for toxoplasmosis. To further reduce the risk for toxoplasmosis, HIV-infected patients should keep cats indoors, not allow them to hunt, and not feed them raw or undercooked meat. Although declawing is not usually advised, patients should avoid activities that might result in cat scratches or bites to reduce the risk for Bartonella infection. Patients should also wash sites of cat scratches or bites promptly and should not allow cats to lick patients’ open cuts or wounds. Care of cats should include flea control to reduce the risk for Bartonella infection. Testing cats for toxoplasmosis or Bartonella infection is not recommended, as such tests cannot accurately identify animals that pose a current risk for human infection.
Screening healthy birds for Cryptococcus neoformans, Mycobacterium avium, or Histoplasma capsulatum is not recommended.
HIV-infected persons should avoid or limit contact with reptiles (e.g., snakes, lizards, iguanas, and turtles) and chicks and ducklings because of the high risk for exposure to Salmonella spp. Gloves should be used during aquarium cleaning to reduce the risk for infection with Mycobacterium marinum. Contact with exotic pets (e.g., nonhuman primates) should be avoided.