Keeping a pet can be a good experience for a child since they not only provide companionship and entertainment, but also are good teaching aids for character building and responsibility. Additionally, pets are also known to boost a child’s health.
In 2012, a Finnish study revealed that children who had grown up with dogs as pets were found to be healthier than children who did not have pets.
Though not conclusive, researchers reckon the reason behind it may lie in the babies’ exposure to the microbes that pets carry which in turn prime their developing immune systems, training them early to fend off common allergens and infections from animals, bacteria and viruses.
The research results, published in the Paediatrics journal, indicated that children who lived with pets and especially cats and dogs, reported less cases of colds, respiratory tract and ear infections and need for antibiotics.
While that sounds like good news all-round, that may not be the result in all cases. Like it or not, pets are notorious breeding grounds for bacteria and other germs.
Couple that with poor care and essentially one is looking at a hotbed of diseases waiting to happen especially to people suffering from vulnerable immunity such as pregnant women, infants and young children.
The common ways of transmitting animal infections include bites, scratches, contact with the animal’s saliva or waste and dander (flecks of skin shed by cats, dogs, rodents, birds and animals with fur or feathers). While most adults can fend off the infections, children are not so lucky.
Common infections that pets carry
Campylobacter: Dogs and cats are notorious for bacterial intestinal tract infections, which can lead to diarrhoea, abdominal pain and fever. Campylobacter infections, caused by the Campylobacter jejuni bacteria, are contagious and can spread through an entire family, kids in childcare or pre-schools. The disease is manageable through a round of antibiotics.
Cat scratch disease: It can occur when a child is bitten or scratched by a cat infected by the Bartonella henselae bacteria. Symptoms include swollen and tender lymph nodes, fever, headaches, and fatigue. Infection is treated by antibiotics.
Worms: Cats and dogs also play good hosts for worms such as roundworms, which can cause fever, wheezing and coughs, and even blindness when they find their way to a victim’s eye.
Vectors: Ticks and fleas can also spread infections leading to fever, chills, muscle aches and headaches.
The inhalation of some types of fungi common in birds’ droppings especially pigeon can also lead to pneumonia and meningitis if not treated on time. Reptiles and amphibians such as lizards, snakes, turtles or frogs can cause salmonella infections through their faeces. Infection is characterised by diarrhoea, fever and abdominal cramps but younger children face more serious symptoms including dehydration, meningitis, and sepsis or blood infections.
Rodents such as rabbits and fish are not exempted and can cause infections, which can easily deteriorate from simple skin infections as far as handling fish tanks are concerned, to pneumonia where rodents are involved.
Prevention and treatment
When detected early enough, most infections can be treated with antibiotics. Significant bites should be washed out thoroughly and doctor’s treatment sought. Children with prior conditions such as eczema should probably avoid aquariums as the water may cause further skin irritation.
Always ensure that your children’s hands are washed after handling a pet or their food. With regard to younger children, ensure that they do not sleep or play with, in, or on litter boxes and the pet’s utensils.
Additionally, they should not clean out the litter boxes until you are sure they are old enough to do so. Prevent or try to limit as much as possible kissing, licking or sharing of food between young children and pets as infections can be passed on through saliva. When it comes to dealing with pets, prevention is better than cure; limit their chances of passing infections by ensuring all pets are vaccinated accordingly and receive their routine immunisation treatments as recommended by a veterinarian.
Clean up after your pets as much as possible including picking up wastes. Where applicable, ensure regular baths with the relevant materials such as pet medicated shampoos or apply topical or oral medication for vector control. Ensure the medication is child friendly so as not to cause reactions such as rashes.