Play it safe around pets | Health Beat

Caring for a cat involves more than just cuddles and playtime. It’s critical to treat any scratches you get when handling them. (For Health Beat)

Whether it’s a dog, cat, turtle or guinea pig, most families are likely to get a pet at some point.

And while there’s plenty of fun to be had in adding a new member to the family, proper care of the pet—and its living environment—is an important part of keeping your family healthy and safe.

Little ones love to put their hands in everything, dirty animal crates or cages included. When kids dig around in aquariums, crates or boxes to pick up their pet friends, they can sometimes encounter harmful waste or dirty bedding.

Cleanliness can make all the difference in the world, Daliya Khuon, MD, pediatric infectious disease specialist at Corewell Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, said.

“Talk to your veterinarian about pet-handling tips and how to avoid bites and scratches,” Dr. Khuon said. “It’s all about gentle touches in my experience. And keeping pet nails trimmed to avoid scratches.”

Infection potential

Reptiles, cats and dogs are the most common causes of infection in adults and children who handle animals. Still, most of these animals can be handled at home, Dr. Khuon said.

“Bites from animals happen all the time,” she said. “And it can usually be taken care of by your pediatrician or the emergency department if they break the skin.

“With cats, we worry about cat scratch fever or any scratch that can cause an infection,” she said.

Cat scratch disease, a bacterial infection that can cause swollen lymph nodes, is a common cause of fever in young children.

“Kitten scratches can carry bacteria and cause infection, too,” she said. “In some kids, these fevers go on for quite some time.”

Reptiles, meanwhile, can carry salmonella on them. Pet owners should wash their hands well, both before and after touching them.

“This is especially true if they are little, tiny turtles,” Dr. Khuon said. “It is actually illegal to sell tiny turtles due to the number of Salmonella infections associated with them.”

Developing an infection from a gerbil, a pet rat or a pet mouse is less common. Animals from a pet store are typically safe.

“These pets don’t carry as many diseases as the ones you may catch in a trap,” she said, referring to rodents you may find scurrying around the house.

Fleas can be carried on any animal, including furry house pets, Dr. Khuon said. She recommended working with your pet’s veterinarian on best practices to avoid infestations on pets and in your home.

“Flea bites can be very itchy and bothersome,” she said. “And it can be quite difficult to rid a house of fleas once an infestation has began.”

Chickens are another popular pet, with many cities even allowing chicken coops in backyards. Extra precaution should be taken when handling them.

“It is very important to wash your hands after handling chickens or collecting eggs,” Dr. Khuon said. “Salmonella is very common on chickens, as they don’t have a separate rectum.”

Chicken eggs come out of the same opening that waste exits from.

It’s also difficult for a chicken to clean itself, she said. Always wash your hands after handling them.

Collect eggs often and clean off dirt and debris with a clean cloth. Refrigerating eggs after collecting them can help maintain freshness and slow bacterial growth. You should not wash warm, fresh eggs since that can pull bacteria into the eggs.

Prevent problems

Practicing good hand hygiene and vaccinating your animals are the simplest and most effective prevention measures, Dr. Khuon said.

Her best advice on cat scratch prevention: Be gentle with kittens and don’t leave young children alone with them.

And claws aren’t the only cat hazard. Boxes need to be kept tidy, too.

“Litter boxes can carry parasites that can cause rather significant infections in pregnant women and can be transmitted into their babies or anyone who is immunocompromised in the house,” she said. “Wash your hands really well after changing cat litter.”

Animals such as lizards, iguanas, mice or rats may require a bit of extra attention to ensure their cages and crates are safe and clean.

Dogs are less problematic as long as they’re up to date on vaccinations. But if you end up with a dog bite, it will need attention.

“If there is a puncture in the skin, that should be addressed right away,” Dr. Khuon said. “Oral antibiotics can help, too.”

Pet birds can also pose a small risk, as they sometimes have fungus in their droppings that can cause allergic reactions and respiratory infections. But this usually only becomes a problem if a household has a large quantity of birds living indoors and their cages are not frequently cleaned, Dr. Khuon said.

“When we see kids who are sick, we delve into the family’s history,” she said. “And sometimes we end up seeing animal exposure as the common denominator.”

Also, it’s important to remember that you and your children should avoid close contact with wild animals, as they pose added risks.

“As a general rule of thumb, don’t try to feed wild animals, especially from your hand,” she said. “Many can carry rabies, most notoriously bats.”

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