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Pets and Your Health: Separating Fact, Fiction

NEW YORK -- Plenty of conventional "wisdom" about the impact of pets on humans' health - and yours on theirs -- is flat-out wrong, or misleading.

Resident "Early Show" veterinarian Dr. Debbye Turner Bell addressed several common questions Thursday:

Is it dangerous to sleep with your pet?

It is generally not dangerous to sleep with your pets. Millions of pet owners have shared their beds with their pets since the beginning of domesticated animals. However, there are some hygiene issues and cautions that should be taken into consideration. First, there are some diseases that can be passed from pets to people (these are called zoonotic diseases) through such close proximity. They include ringworm, tapeworms, hookworms, and a host of infections that are transmitted from fleas and ticks. Those who have a vulnerable immune system should be especially cautious. That would include young children, elderly, sick individuals, and those with immunodeficiency (like those living with HIV). These individuals should avoid sleeping with animals.

It is also a good idea to keep your pet clean and well-groomed, for a host of health-related reasons involving you and your pet. They should also be free of fleas and ticks. You may want to keep your pet on top of the covers and not between the sheets with you. And of course, keep the pet out of the bed when you or the animal has an active infection of any kind. Otherwise, 'night, 'night, sleep tight!

Are dogs' mouths cleaner than humans'?

This is definitely a myth. Dogs come in contact with a host of pathogens (germs) through their enthusiastic exploration with their mouths. They gleefully eat feces, their own and others'. They drink sloppily from the toilet. They lick their own private parts. They will pretty much put any and everything in their mouths. The reason that all this indiscriminate mouthing doesn't make them sick is that they have a natural set of good bacteria (flora) that helps them fight infection. We do not have this same flora. So if your pooch dines on cat poop then kisses you in the mouth, some pretty nasty germs can be passed along to you. Many people allow their dog to "kiss" them on the mouth. If they knew where their dog's mouth has been just before that kiss, my guess is they would think again about that practice.

Can you catch the flu from your pet?

Unlike bacteria, viruses are much more specific about the host in which they can survive and multiply. So, in general, viruses are not transmitted across a wide number of species. But it is possible for a virus to change (or mutate) and adapt to the environment of a new host (different animals). That is why there have been outbreaks of swine flu and avian flu among human beings. While there is an influenza virus that is quite contagious among dogs, there has been no evidence that it infects humans. Most viruses that cause upper respiratory symptoms like sneezing, runny nose and eyes, and coughing are not known to be contagious to people. But if your dog does have a runny nose, contact your veterinarian to have him checked as soon as possible.

Do dogs bite children more than adults?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 4.7 million people are bitten by dogs each year. One in five bites requires medical attention (800,000 people). Approximately a dozen people die from dog attacks each year. Children are most at risk of being bitten by a dog, especially those between 5 - 9 years old. This is often because the child is at eye level with the dog, approaches or handles the dog inappropriately, bothers the dog's toys or food. Adults should never leave an infant or small child unsupervised with a dog. Never!!

More facts: dult men are more often bitten by a dog than an adult female. Adults with 2 or more dogs as pets are 5 times more likely to be bitten according to the CDC. Eighty-two percent of all fatal bites are by an unrestrained dog (one that is not on a leash or restricted in a yard or carrier).

Wrong ways to approach a strange dog:

1) Running toward an unfamiliar dog.

2) Getting eye level, very close, and smiling. When you smile at the dog, he thinks you are "bearing your teeth" at him. This is an invitation to fight!

3) "Surprising" a dog (sneaking up on him or startling him while he is sleeping). Often, the dog's defense mechanism will kick in, and he will bite in self-defense.

4) Ignoring their warning! If a dogs barks ferociously or growls when you approach his territory, bed, etc. and you continue, that is an engraved invitation to get bitten. They are warning you that they don't like that and you should stop. Listen!!

5) Inappropriate touching: Dogs generally don't like their ears, tail and feet tugged. Some don't like being inverted and rubbed on their belly. This is a position of submission and an aggressive dog will resist this "challenge" vigorously.

Should pet owners make homemade, raw meat meals for their pets?

In recent years, there has been a growing trend in feeding pet dogs and cats raw meat diets. So what, if any, are the benefits and risks of a raw meat diet? There are many differing opinions, but it does seem to come down to two issues -- nutrition and safety. Dogs are omnivores, like humans. They need meat, grains, and vegetables. The challenge with any diet that has not been carefully formulated by veterinary nutritionist is to ensure that the pet gets all of their daily nutritional needs in a safe and balanced way. That is why feeding a high quality, commercially prepared diet is the easiest, most economical, and healthiest option.

Here's what experts say about a raw food diet for pets:

NUTRITION:

ADVOCATES SAY:

-- your pet will get the highest nutritional value from raw foods
-- your pet will be healthier, less likely to get sick, and live longer
-- your pet's performance, coat, body odor, teeth, and breath will improve
-- raw food diets don't have unhealthy additives, such as preservatives
-- raw foods have important nutrients and enzymes that cooking destroys

CRITICS SAY:

-- raw diets are not necessarily complete and balanced
-- there is no study that shows raw food diets are healthier for pets
-- raw food diets may be difficult for your pet to digest
-- bones can damage the animal's teeth and digestive tract

SAFETY:

ADVOCATES SAY:

-- there is NO greater risk handling raw meat for animals than there is for people. The same precautions should be taken.
-- dogs and cats have very different systems than humans. They have stronger stomach acids and pass along food much more quickly, therefore they are not at high risk

CRITICS SAY:

-- health risks for people, associated with handling raw meats, including bacteria and parasites (eg. E.Coli, salmonella, Campylobactor, Trichinella), are a concern
-- pets are just as susceptible to the bacteria and parasites in raw meats as humans
-- while some proponents say freezing will kill the bacteria, it is not true
-- cooking meat is the best way to kill pathogens

From the American Veterinary Medical Association: "There is a greater apparent risk to animals and humans from feeding a raw meat diet," Dr. Strohmeyer commented. "I really do not think that there is any advice we, as veterinarians, can give to improve safety. You can give basic food safety guidelines like hand washing, cleaning surfaces, and bowls, etc., not letting the food sit out for extended periods of time. I just think that it would be a disservice for a veterinarian to give any recommendation for the safety of dogs and their owners (except to not feed raw meat to pets). Bacteria are not the only health concern, there are also parasites and protozoal organisms that can be transmitted in raw meat, even meat labeled fit for human consumption."

Another concern is food safety. According to veterinary nutritionist, Dr. Rebecca Remillarde, the link between handling raw foods at home and exposure to food-borne organisms resulting in food poisoning has been well-documented. Not only does it put humans at risk, but animals are also susceptible to certain sub-species of E.Coli and salmonella. In fact, given the potential risk of handling raw foods, coupled with the growing trend (and therefore increased number of companies producing and selling raw products), the FDA has set up guidelines for just such companies.

ALL THE ANIMALS SEEN IN THIS SEGMENT ARE UP FOR ADOPTION.

They are: Garbo, a 10 month-old Chocolate Lab, Simon, a 9 year-old Shih Tzu, and two kittens, named Erin and Aiden.

All are from the Humane Society of New York.