March 2, 2012 at 8:27 AM ET
Comforting dying pets through their last days turned out to be dangerous for animal owners who wound up with life-threatening infections from the close contact, a new report finds.
A dog owner who licked honey from the dropper she used to feed her pooch, and two cat owners who cuddled and kissed their kitties for days were hospitalized with respiratory illnesses linked to common bacteria the pets harbor in their mouths.
The case studies, reported in the latest issue of the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, highlight the rare hazards of animal intimacy in a country where nine in 10 owners regard pets as members of the family, says the study’s lead author.
“I suspect this happens more often than we know,” said Dr. Joseph Myers, chairman of the department of medicine at Summa Akron City Hospital in Akron, Ohio. “It’ll put it on the radar so that doctors will ask about it.”
Myers believes he’s the first to report cases of Pasteurella multocida infections associated with palliative care by owners of dying pets. It’s rare, of course, but it was striking to encounter three such incidents all within a year, he said.
Typically, P. multocida bacteria live in the mouths of 80 percent of cats and about 60 percent of dogs, Myers said. The bacteria lurk in the oral cavities of many wild and domesticated animals. They’re usually passed along through bites, scratches or other unfriendly behavior, and are the most common cause of skin infections from such animal-related injuries.
It's not clear exactly how many infections occur each year, though health experts at the University of California at Los Angeles note that only about 5 percent of dog bites and 30 percent of cat bites become infected.
The infections can occur through normal affectionate interaction with animals, the routine licking or kissing that some pets and owners can't resist, Myers said. Babies, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems are most at risk because their immune systems can't fight infections as well.
In the cases of the three pet owners in the study, all women in their 50s or 60s, they were previously healthy, but Myers suspects that the sustained close contact simply increased their chances of infection.
The bacteria targeted their respiratory tracts, attacking one woman’s epiglottis, another’s uvula and the lungs of the third.
They showed up at hospital emergency rooms reporting fever, chills, sore and swollen throats and difficulty swallowing and breathing. Quick administration of antibiotics helped, and all three got better within days.
The tricky part was figuring out what caused the unusual bacterial infections. It took careful questioning on the part of doctors to determine that the transmission had come through such close pet care. The pet owners weren't available for interviews, but Myers' study offered details of how they likely became sick.
In the case of the dog, “the patient had co-consumed honey with the dog by licking the same dropper used to comfort-feed the dog,” the report said.
Another patient “continuously held, caressed, hugged and kissed her cat during the last seven days of its life.” The third “had provided palliative care to her dying cat by holding, hugging and kissing the head of the cat and allowing the cat to lick her hands and arms.”
That doesn’t surprise Anthony J. Smith, a veterinarian who runs Rainbow Bridge Vet Services, a pet hospice and palliative services business in Hercules, Calif.
In a country where two-thirds of households have pets and nine in 10 owners say they regard them as family members, according to a 2011 Harris poll, it makes sense to care for the animals at the end of life.
More pet owners -- Smith calls them “pet parents” -- are seeking to make their pets' deaths more comfortable and meaningful, even when they can’t prevent them.
“There’s a general increase in the closeness between people and their pets,” said Smith, who treated 1,000 pet clients in the past two years. “They’re wanting the same kind of services that they want for their human family members.”
Smith, who helped co-found the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, understands the urge to closely care for pets and he doesn’t want people to avoid physical contact with their animals. Still, he advises common sense.
“When you start licking your cat or dog or you start sharing utensils with your dog, you put yourself at risk for those things,” he said. “Those probably weren’t the best ideas from a human health perspective.”
Myers, the doctor who wrote the study, agreed. “I would not recommend that.”
But even Myers admitted the cases haven’t altered how he cares for his three dogs.
Would it have changed the behavior of the women who got sick?
“I don’t think so,” Myers said. “These pets are so ingrained into the family.”