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Sleeping With Your Pets Can Be Unhealthy, Study Says

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Do you let your pet sleep with you? It could be hazardous to your health.

Sound crazy?  A new study says a surprising number of people allow their pets to curl up with them, and it could actually be risky. But are the new findings overblown? What dangers could you face from close contact with your pets?

In a nightly ritual, Chrissy Carew and her five dogs all bunk up together for the night.

"I consider them full-fledged members of our family," she says.

A new survey shows 56 percent of dog owners in the U.S. let their dogs sleep next to them. But researchers say that could lead to some real problems. 

"Sometimes we forget that they aren't our children. They are pets and also they have their own life and there are diseases that can be transmitted," says veterinarian Bruno Chomel of the University of California's School of Veterinary Medicine.

Chomel is one of the lead authors of the study just published by the Centers for Disease Control. Researchers tracked people who had close contact with their dogs and cats, either sleeping next to their pet or allowing their animal to lick and kiss them.

In rare instances, some caught illnesses like the plague, rabies, antibiotic-resistant infections; meningitis; and cat-scratch fever. Others picked up ringworm and intestinal parasites.

Medical experts say that one of the most important things a pet owner can do is to keep your dog or cat free of fleas. The insects bite and could spread disease.

"You always think it's never going to happen to me, but when it happens to you it can be very sad and very bad," Chomel says.

Eric Marlowe Garrison caught a terrible case of ringworm on his foot. The culprit: his roommate's cat. He says he will change the way he interacts with pets.

"It has certainly taught me a lesson," Garrison says.

But infectious disease expert Dr. William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine says his cat sleeps with him.   

"Anytime human beings have close associations with animals, including their pets, there's some risk, but it's very, very small," he says.

Indoor cats pose less risk because they don't come in contact with fleas.

Chrissy Carew makes sure she keeps her dogs very clean and plans to continue to let them in her bed, despite the survey findings. 

People most at risk for catching something from a pet are the elderly, the very young and people with weakened immune systems. If your pet appears sick, limit close physical contact until they are better. Always wash your hands after petting an animal.

Remember that researchers have also found that pets have tremendously positive benefits on people's health, like reducing stress and anxiety.

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