Following up on yesterday’s post about a bird-and-fish-associated infection, this next story also involves a pet bird, but with a much worse outcome. It involves a young woman who developed a very serious case of psittacosis linked to her job in a pet store. Psittacosis is a bacterial disease caused by Chlamydophila psittaci, a bacterium that is linked mainly to psittacine birds (i.e. birds in the parrot family), and it’s one that is easy to overlook if bird contact isn’t considered.
The woman sued the pet store where she worked and the associated companies, receiving a multi-million dollar settlement to help compensate for her for the devastating complications of infection, including brain damage. The lawsuit alleged that she contracted the infection from a cockatiel that the store purchased. It’s not clear how/if that was confirmed, but it’s a reasonable source.
Importantly, the focus of the claim isn’t that she was exposed to C. psittaci. Rather, it’s that she had received no health and safety training for her job. That’s an important distinction because there is an ever-present risk of zoonotic pathogen exposure when there’s contact with animals. Whether it’s a personal pet, petting zoo or job in a pet store (or vet clinic), exposure is always a risk. The key is the need for people to know the risk and what they can do to reduce the risk. If a workers (or pet owners) have this information, they can make an informed decision about whether or not they are willing to accept that risk. If they are not educated and trained, they can’t. The pet store can’t be the one deciding whether an employee is willing to accept the risk. The employee has to do that, after being given the tools to do so. Too often, education is lacking, whether it’s a pet store employee, petting zoo visitor or pet owner. That’s what more lawsuits are focusing on, and cases like this should highlight the importance of education and training.
Another component of this case that wasn’t discussed in the article is the medical care the plaintiff received . Psittacosis can be severe but is also treatable, especially if caught early. As has been a common theme on this blog, obtaining animal contact history is a key aspect of successful treatment of zoonotic diseases, but unfortunately one that’s rarely done right.