By DR. MARTY BECKER
Universal Press Syndicate
Sometimes the news about dangers to humans from animal-carried diseases reads like an installment from the Threat-of-the-Month Club. And you have to wonder: Are the pets who live in our homes and sleep on our sofas a health risk?
In a word, "yes." In a few more words, "not really." The risk of your well-cared-for pet making you sick are low and can be made even lower by taking a few commonsense precautions. As I often say, "Get rid of the risk and keep the pet."
Pets can harbor parasites and transmit diseases that might endanger our health. These cross-species dangers are known as "zoonoses," with rabies being the most deadly. Rabies is also the best example of a public health triumph when it comes to an animal-borne threat. Where the cry of "Mad dog!" once terrified towns across the country -- remember that scene in "To Kill a Mockingbird"? -- today, legally mandated rabies vaccination programs have made the disease something you're more likely to get from a wild animal than a stray dog.
The most common threats to human health these days come from zoonotic diseases that are less deadly than rabies. One of the best-known is toxoplasmosis, from a parasite that infects nearly all mammals, including humans. While most people are not adversely affected by exposure to toxoplasmosis, pregnant women and those with depressed immune function are at risk. Toxoplasmosis can be transmitted through cat feces, so those at risk should have someone else change the litter box. Again, reduce the risk and keep the pet!
Salmonella has long been a concern, with outbreaks recently occurring in people who've handled pet reptiles or rodents infected with the bacteria. Other diseases include giardiasis (caused by a parasite), leptospirosis (caused by a bacteria), and ringworm (caused not by a worm, but by a fungus).
Now that I've scared you, remember you're more likely to catch a cold from your co-worker than something from your healthy pet. And while you can't do much about the co-worker who comes to work sick and sneezes all over you, you can protect yourself from zoonotic disease with a few simple precautions:
-- Use good, basic hygiene, and be sure your children are doing the same. Hand-washing is the cornerstone of disease prevention, so be sure everyone washes up with soap and water (or an antibacterial hand cleaner if bathroom facilities are not available) after handling pets, and especially before preparing food or eating.
-- Consider sources carefully when choosing pets, especially reptiles and rodents. Don't buy from a source that doesn't seem to practice good hygiene in animal-care areas. Families with young children, elderly relatives or immune-suppressed members ought to consider not choosing rodent or reptile pets at all.
-- Follow your veterinarian's advice on keeping pets free of all parasites. Puppies and kittens need to be de-wormed, and both dogs and cats should be on a heartworm preventive that also controls the most common intestinal parasites.
-- Keep your pet up-to-date on vaccinations and don't skip regular "well pet" visits. Annual vaccinations are no longer recommended across the board. Instead, veterinary organizations now recommend tailoring vaccines to an individual pet's needs, taking into account that animal's lifestyle and the risks prevalent in the region. Don't let reduced vaccination schedules become an excuse to skip regular physicals. A healthy pet is your best protection against zoonotic disease.
-- Handle pet waste properly. Pick up after your dog immediately, and keep the cat's litter box clean. Dispose of waste safely by putting it in a composting digester (not your garden's compost pile), or by wrapping it up and placing it in your garbage bin.
-- Keep pets away from outdoor water sources, which may introduce parasites. Toilet water may do the same, so if your pet likes to drink from the bowl, keep the lid down. On walks, carry fresh water for your dog.
When in doubt, talk to your veterinarian. No other health-care professional sees both pets and people. The nation's veterinarians are front-line troops in the war on animal disease -- and that includes keeping those diseases from making us sick. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also has an excellent collection of information on its Healthy Pets Web site (www.cdc.gov/healthypets).
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of several best-selling pet-care books.
On PetConnection.com there's more information on pets and their care, reviews of products, books and "dogmobiles," and a weekly drawing for pet-care prizes. Contact Pet Connection in care of this newspaper by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or visiting PetConnection.com.
Canine seatbelts really necessary?
Q: My husband and I have had dogs for more than 37 years, and we've taken them all across the country in the car. I want you to know we've never put them in a crate or seatbelt harness. Instead, we've trained them to behave.
I just don't think crates and seatbelts are such a good idea. A human can take off the seat belt and get out, but a dog can't. I think it's a trade-off, and I wonder if the risk of hitting the windshield is greater than being trapped in the car. Our attitude: We've never had a problem, so why change what we're doing? I think it's just an excuse to get us to buy more stuff. -- W.S., via e-mail
A: Anyone who has ever been through driver training has seen images of crash-test dummies flying forward into the windshield. It won't even take a major accident at a high rate of speed to turn your dog into unsecured cargo, flying around the car at risk to himself and all other passengers.
But it's not just about the impact. Having a dog secured is also safer after an accident. Emergency personnel can work more safely around a secured dog. If you are incapacitated, animal-control officials will be more able to care for a dog they don't have to catch. After an accident, a loose dog could even bite someone, from fear, injury or protectiveness.
It doesn't take much of a leap of logic to see that securing animals in a moving vehicle is just as good an idea as securing people or cargo. For the safety of your pet, of the other occupants of the car and of everyone else on the road endangered by a driver's distraction, resolve to start securing your dog.
It doesn't matter that you've been lucky so far. Your luck could change tomorrow, and you'll all be safer if your pets are secured. Old dogs can learn new tricks, and we older pet lovers can, too! -- Gina Spadafori
Greens for iguana
Q: What should I feed my iguana? I just got one, and there's different information all over the Internet. -- P.T., via e-mail
A: Iguanas should be fed plant matter only, a mixture of vegetation that's high in calcium but low in phosphorus and fat. Choices include mustard, collard and turnip greens, as well as yams, carrots, alfalfa sprouts, alfalfa hay and squash.
Chop the vegetables into sizes that can be easily handled by the pet, mix them up, and store them in the refrigerator in an airtight container. Offer small amounts twice a day, and sprinkle the food with a calcium supplement, available at a pet store. This diet can be supplemented by commercial foods.
Iguanas are not easy-keepers -- there's a lot more involved than just giving them the right diet -- which is perhaps why these pets finally seem to be waning in popularity. People don't seem to realize that these cute little "dinosaurs" grow up to be almost 6 feet long and can live for more than 20 years. That's if they grow up at all, of course, since many die before maturity because of a lack of proper care.
If you're going to search the Internet for iguana information, get the right stuff. Your first stop should be Melissa Kaplan's Anapsid.org. Even better, pick up a copy of her outstanding "Iguanas for Dummies" (Wiley, $22). It doesn't seem that you were quite prepared to take on this pet, but you can educate yourself now to provide your iguana with everything he needs.
Remember: Your new pet is counting on you! -- Gina Spadafori
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to email@example.com.)
Get in the swing with ball launcher
As a frustrated golfer (is there any other kind?) who owns an excitable golden retriever (ditto previous question), I couldn't resist the Doggie Driver. My dog doesn't get enough exercise, and I don't get to play enough golf.
I live on a quiet street. And while this violates every code in the Good Dog Owner Handbook, I take my dog out at least once every night with my tennis ball launcher. In five or 10 minutes, she gets the exercise she needs.
The Doggie Driver seemed like a neat new twist. The test run, however, was less than auspicious.
You place the ball in the face of the plastic driver and swing away. My drives didn't shatter any windows, but I could see immediately that the Doggie Driver lacked the accuracy of a standard tennis ball launcher.
And then there were my kids, who of course had to try it, too. It takes a pretty powerful swing just to get the tennis ball to leave the clubface. When I pulled the ball halfway out of the clubface, my son took a whack and duck-hooked the ball onto a neighbor's roof. My daughter's shot sailed backward.
I'm not ready to write off the Doggie Driver yet, but I suggest keeping it in the bag on visits to dog parks, and definitely don't use it in residential areas. It is a golf club, after all, and streets are narrower than fairways.
The Hyper Products Doggie Driver has a suggested retail of $30. -- Bob Burns
Mix things up for bird diet
Avian veterinarians say parrots do best on a diet of high-quality pellets, combined with daily helpings of healthy food such as fresh vegetables and fruits. But what if you don't want to spend all your time chopping up a healthy mix of produce?
It's easy to provide your pet with the good food he needs year-round by using frozen mixed vegetables, such as those sold for stir-fry dishes. Bags of vegetable mixes are easy to find and easy to store, and it takes only a short spell in the microwave to bring them up to room temperature. (Check after heating them to be sure you don't have pockets that are hot enough to hurt your bird.) Little shopping, no chopping and no rotting veggies in the refrigerator -- what could be better? -- Gina Spadafori
Cats can benefit from grooming help
Sure, your cat can groom herself, but there are benefits to you both if you help her out.
Grooming your cat regularly will reduce the amount of hair that ends up on your clothes and throughout the house, both as shed hair and hair balls. It'll also help allergy sufferers to better tolerate sharing their lives with cats, especially if you add a weekly bath to your cat's regular routine.
Your cat will benefit too. Keeping your cat well-groomed will help you spot health problems before they become serious. Is your cat's coat thinning? Are there wounds, lumps or bumps? You'll find the answers to all these questions when you groom your cat. When done gently and with a positive approach, grooming will also help strengthen the bond between you and your pet.
Although it's easiest to teach a cat to tolerate grooming when you start with a kitten, even an adult cat can learn to appreciate -- or at least tolerate -- the attention. Here are some tips to get you started:
-- Give yourself a fresh start. If you have a cat who's badly matted, arrange to have her shaved down by a groomer so you don't torture the poor thing by trying to comb out the clumps.
-- Go slowly. Introduce new routines a little bit at a time to build your cat's tolerance.
-- Reward your cat. Use treats, praise and gentle petting to let your pet know that you approve of his patience. You can't make a cat do anything he doesn't want to, so praise is the only way to go.
-- Know when to call it a day. End the grooming session before your cat becomes impatient, annoyed or afraid. But if you miss the signs of an irritated cat or feel yourself becoming cross, stop immediately and let your cat go before you get bitten or clawed. -- Gina Spadafori
BY THE NUMBERS
The right angle
Although new materials such as acrylic make all kinds of aquarium shapes possible, most fish-keepers still choose the traditional rectangular shape. Aquarium shapes chosen (multiple answers allowed):
Rectangular 76 percent
Bubble/round 15 percent
Hexagonal 9 percent
Bow-front 4 percent
Coffee table 2 percent
Source: American Pet Products Manufacturers Association
ON GOOD BEHAVIOR
Offer alternatives for your cat to scratch
Cats scratch to stretch their muscles, groom their nails and mark their territory. Shredding the sides of furniture is normal, healthy and natural behavior. To ease the destructiveness, provide scratching alternatives and teach cats the difference between acceptable and unacceptable scratching.
Teach acceptable scratching by placing treats and catnip on scratching posts and cat trees. Play chase games that move the laser light, string, toy mouse or feather up and around the post. Praise your cat whenever a paw touches an approved scratching area. At the same time, make furniture unattractive with a covering of foil, plastic wrap or commercial cat repellent.
Test your cat's preferences by providing an abundance of alternatives: both vertical and horizontal posts, in wood, carpet, cardboard and sisal rope surfaces.
(Animal behavior experts Susan and Dr. Rolan Tripp are the authors of "On Good Behavior." For more information, visit their Web site at AnimalBehavior.net.)
Pet Connection is produced by a team of team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of several best-selling pet-care books. Contact Pet Connection in care of this newspaper, by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or by visiting PetConnection.com.
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