Video: ‘He’s my son in a fur coat’

By Reporters
msnbc.com and NBC News
updated 2/4/2009 6:20:35 AM ET 2009-02-04T11:20:35

Bert Kanist thought nothing of it when he gave his dog Ozzie a treat one day last month — two packages of peanut butter crackers.

Within hours, Ozzie was terribly sick.

“He was throwing up,” Kanist said outside his home in this suburb of Atlanta. “He had diarrhea. His knees were wobbly.”

The next day, Ozzie was dead. But Kanist’s other dog, Snickers — a pound mutt, like Ozzie —  refused the crackers and was just fine.

The crackers were from a brand called Austin, made by Kellogg Co. Kellogg recalled them in mid-January because the line was made with peanut paste supplied by Peanut Corp. of America of Lynchburg, Va., whose salmonella-contaminated products are blamed for sickening more than 500 people and may have contributed to at least eight deaths.

The Austin crackers were just one of more than 420 products that companies across the food industry have recalled because they may be contaminated with salmonella, which most people probably think of only as a human pathogen.

But food safety experts say pets can be equally at risk, either from eating contaminated pet food or contaminated people food. That’s why at least 14 brands of pet treats are on the Food and Drug Administration’s list of foods that have been recalled since Jan. 1 because they were made with products from Peanut Corp.

From owner to pet and back again
As hard as it might be to lose a beloved pet to salmonellosis, doctors say an infected pet poses a bigger problem: It could infect its owner, because the bacterium Salmonella spp. can be transmitted via waste or saliva.

That means you could contract salmonellosis simply by letting your dog lick you, veterinarians warn.

Even if their pets show no signs of the illness, owners should always be careful. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine said last year that they were able to easily isolate Salmonella spp. from healthy-looking dogs and cats, making them classic carrier animals.

“Dogs and cats may suffer salmonellosis as a ‘reverse zoonosis,’ with infection transmitted from human-to-dog and subsequently back to other humans,” the researchers wrote. “Similarly, outbreaks of salmonella infections in large animal teaching hospitals have been linked to the introduction of bacteria from infected human personnel, with subsequent spread to animals and then back to other human workers.”

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Most people recover from salmonella exposure without treatment, but it can be deadly to infants, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems. Of particular concern are children who own “pocket pets” — smaller animals like lizards, turtles and other reptiles — which also can transmit the illness.

In a separate report last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics found that as many as 11 percent of all salmonella illnesses in American children stemmed from contact with small reptiles. Pet turtles were responsible for 103 cases of salmonella infection in the second half of 2007, most of them in young children, the report said.

“It’s pretty common,” said Patricia Joyce, a veterinarian in New York specializing in small animal medicine. “They’re definitely not ideal pets for kids who are still working out their understanding of hygiene.”

Simple steps to stay safe
Unfortunately, said the lead author of the academy’s report, Larry Pickering, an infectious disease specialist at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “many parents clearly don’t understand the risks from various infections” such animals can carry.

The CDC said parents could take some simple steps to keep themselves and their pet-loving children safe:

  • Regularly wash your pet’s feeding bowls to prevent growth of bacteria.
  • Thoroughly wash your hands and your children’s hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds after handling dry pet foods, including pet treats.
  • Avoid letting any human food and utensils come into contact with pet food.
  • Make sure to thoroughly clean any counters and utensils you use to prepare your pet’s dinner.
  • Handle litter boxes carefully, and always thoroughly wash your hands and keep the area around the litter box clean.

‘Where I went, he went’
Bert Kanist didn’t get sick from salmonella — at least not physically. The hole in his life after Ozzie died is another matter.

“He’s my son in a fur coat,” Kanist said. “Where I went, he went.”

As the investigation of the contaminated peanut products continues, Kanist said he was having a hard time getting authorities to give him a straight answer as to who’s responsible. Until he gets one, Kanist said, he will struggle with a terrible uncertainty, wondering “whether I poisoned my own dog.”

Jaye Watson is a reporter for NBC station WXIA of Atlanta. Alex Johnson is a reporter for msnbc.com. Leanne Gregg of NBC News contributed to this report.

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