From the time I was a very young child up to young adulthood, I spent each summer living with my grandparents, working on their farm in Kimberly, Idaho.  The farm had milk cows, chickens, pigs, cats, dogs, and of course my horse and my sister’s horse.  We children were a source of “free labor” and labor we did.  Hoeing long rows of beans, beets, thinning beets, bailing hay, harvesting grain, not to mention milking cows each morning beginning at 4:00 A.M. and again each evening,  and heaven forbid– the dreaded chickens and rooster who took particular delight in making my life “miserable” as they pecked my legs and hands as I gathered their eggs.

Animals have always been an integral part of my life.  I love them!  I’ve lost track of how many cats and dogs have been in my life along with my beloved horses.  In fact, the first acquisition my husband and I made after we were married was a tropical fish tank with beautiful fish and two cats.  Now I know you probably think what a strange combination, but the cats loved watching the fish swim as much as we enjoyed them.   Our children grew up with animals so it was only natural for them to start their “animal family” along with having their children.

Romeo is the latest addition to the family.  He is an exuberant dachshund who is in perpetual motion, wiggling, jumping, and trying to lick and kiss you constantly.  He is well named but his kissing is what I want to address.

Pets can be a real blessing.  They can offer an alternative to medications to help improve mental and physical health.  Research shows all kinds of conclusive evidence that pets can help heal and soothe health complaints.  Heart attack victims who have pets live longer.  Watching a tank full of tropical fish may help lower your blood pressure, at least temporarily.  Pets brought into nursing homes can improve people’s moods, desire and ability to interact socially.

But, even healthy pets can carry parasites, bacteria or viruses that can cause mild to life-threatening illness in people.  Of the 250 zoonotic diseases–meaning infections transmitted between animals and people–more than 100 come from domestic pets.  Infections transmitted to people after sleeping with their cat or dog, kissing them or being licked by the pet include:  hook worm; ringworm, roundworm, cat scratch disease, and drug-resistant staph infections.

Researchers estimate that several million infections are passed between pets and people annually in the United States, ranging from skin conditions to life-threatening illnesses. People with weakened immune systems are at greater risk for getting an infection from an animal.  These include seniors, children younger than five years, people with HIV/AIDS and cancer patients.

Owners can stay healthy by practicing good hygiene habits.  Wash your hands with soap and hot water after handling pets, especially puppies, kittens, or any aged cat or dog with diarrhea. These “high-risk pets” are more likely to harbor an infection that could be passed to people.  Immediately wash any area licked by a pet.  Keep your pets free of fleas, ticks, and routinely de-worm them and have regular examinations by your veterinarian.

Now a word about wild animals and birds.  Raccoons are frequently infected with the parasite called Baylisascaris procyonis.  Infected raccoons  with this worm dump hundreds of thousands of parasite eggs in their feces.  All you have to do is touch a spot where an infected raccoon has been and the parasite can transfer to your own body.  The parasite can transfer to your pets, and then infect you via your pets. This worm literally eats your brains.  Fatality is as high as 30%.  With children even higher.

Lyme disease is traditionally associated with ticks.  However, it can be carried by all kinds of wild birds, raccoons, deer, elk, antelope just to mention a few.  The wild birds and animals can deposit the spirochete, Borrelia burghdorferi onto grass, bushes, dirt etc. through their eliminations.  If you or your pet brush against or come in contact with the spirochete or an elimination then even though you haven’t received a tick bite, you can contract Lyme disease.  A year ago in Utah there was a news report on a new community being infected with Lyme disease.  The County Health department couldn’t figure out why so many children and adults all in one area were being infected and getting sick, since none of them had come in contact with a tick.  The children in the development were playing in an undeveloped lot.  Field mice living in the tall grass and weeds were carrying the spirochete and depositing it onto the grass and weeds via their eliminations.   When the children came in contact with these deposits, they were infected.  This information was completely contrary to popular information that only a Tick embedded in your skin could produce Lyme disease.

Cats carry toxoplasmosis.  If a woman is pregnant and has a cat that  uses an indoor kitty box, then while she is pregnant she should not clean the kitty box because of potential harm to her unborn child.  If a pregnant woman knows a cat that has feline leukemia, she should avoid all physical contact with the cat.    Dogs carry worms.  Again the best defense is a consistent de-worming program for your dog.

Owning a pet can and should outweigh any risks with proper precautions and good hygiene habits.  I wouldn’t give up any of my pets.  They are an integral part of my life and my family.  My father use to tell me that an animal or pet would never teach me a bad habit, but I could teach the animal or pet a bad habit.

With colder weather coming, take appropriate measures  to  care for your pets.  Make certain they have a clean, healthy environment.   In summary,  allow them to give their unconditional love to you and enjoy the experience.