The Hidden Health Hazards of Pets

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"The Healthy Geezer" answers questions about health and aging in his weekly column.

Question: Can pets make you sick?

Answer:  A disease or infection that's transmitted from an animal to a person is called zoonosis. Seniors are especially vulnerable to zoonoses.

Psittacosis, or "parrot fever", is a common bird disease. Caused by a bacterium, it occurs frequently in birds such as parakeets and cockatiels. People can develop it if they inhale the bacterium, which is found in bird droppings and nasal discharge. Psittacosis can develop into pneumonia and other health problems.

Cats can carry a parasite in their feces that causes the disease toxoplasmosis. Symptoms include a fever, headache, sore throat, swollen lymph nodes and muscle pain   Cat scratch disease, which can occur after a person is scratched or bitten by a feline, may cause fever, fatigue, headache and swollen lymph nodes. Fortunately, most cat scratches don't result in CSD.

Worms can infect dogs, cats and people. Worms live in the intestinal tracts of animals, and yards and homes can be contaminated when worm eggs are passed in animal feces and hatch in the soil. If they're accidentally eaten, the worms can trigger problems. Symptoms, which depend upon the type of worm, cause a cough or asthma-like symptoms, or itchy, red skin. Vision can be affected, too.

People usually contract the bacterium salmonellosis enterocolitis, or salmonella, by eating contaminated food.  The result: Diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps. But salmonella  can also be transmitted through pets, especially reptiles, baby chicks and ducklings, which commonly pass the salmonella bacterium in their feces.

Rabies, a deadly viral disease, is transmitted via the saliva of a rabid animal, usually by a bite. Domestic animals account for less than 10 percent of the reported animal rabies cases.

Mycobacterium is one of the main infectious germ families associated with fish and aquarium water. That's why people should wear rubber gloves when cleaning a fish tank. In humans, the bacterium initially causes small, purplish bumps on the skin; eventually it can spread to tendons and joints, causing arthritis-like symptoms.

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All Rights Reserved @ 2013 by Fred Cicetti.

Fred Cicetti is a contributing writer for Live Science who specializes in health. He has been writing professionally since 1963. Before he began freelancing, he was a reporter, rewriteman and columnist for three daily newspapers in New Jersey: The Newark News, Newark Star-Ledger and Morristown Record. He has written two published novels:" Saltwater Taffy—A Summer at the Jersey Shore," and "Local Angles—Big News in Small Towns."