Does your sleeping space also function as a bed for your canine or feline companion? Is your dog or cat habitually waking you up in the morning with a purposeful gnaw or paw at your face? If so, you are one of many owners having such habitual relationships with their pets. Yet, are these pet behaviors appropriate and could they even lead to health problems among human caretakers?
The topic recently was brought to my attention after reading two Huffington Post articles, Cat Alarm Clocks' Are The Best Alarm Clocks and Dog Alarm Clocks Are Actually The Best Alarm Clocks, each claiming that cats or dogs make for a better alarm clock. The articles include videos featuring dogs and cats exerting effort to rouse their owners into providing physical interaction or (likely) a morning feeding. These determined canines and felines will seemingly stop at nothing to get their way. More benign attempts at rousing an owner include getting onto the bed, vocalizing, and standing or walking on and pushing the covers off a sleeping person. From the perspective of public health, more concerning interactions include pawing, licking, and biting at body parts, including the hands, face (mouth, chain, nose, cheeks, etc.), and hair.
My goal here is not to play the role of Debbie Downer, but although the articles and videos play up the cute factor of pets interacting with their owners in common-but-not-often-filmed manners, they actually bring up valid health concerns about the safety of certain canine and feline behaviors.
In 2011, I wrote the article Is It Safe To Let Sleeping Dogs Lie In Your Bed in response to the highly-publicized USA Today news piece Sleeping next to pets could be harmful, study says, which details the dangers associated with sharing one’s bed space with an animal companion.
According to Bruno Chomel, a professor at the University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, the spread of a variety of infectious organisms is associated with close contact occurring when pets sleep in our beds. Chomel states, “There are private places in the household, and I think our pets should not go beyond next to the bed.”
Chomel clearly has concern for the greater good of public health, as diseases like Bubonic plague (caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis), Chagas disease (brought on by the protozoan Trypanosoma Cruzi), and cat scratch disease (CSD, caused by the bacteria Bartonella sp.) could follow zoonotic transmission (transfer between different species) from a pet to a person.
Since the paws and mouths of our cats and dogs are dirty places potentially teeming with infectious organisms, there are valid concerns associated with letting your pet paw at or lick your body parts. After all, your cat steps into her soiled litter box a few times every day and then uses her feet to cover her feces and urine with litter. Additionally, your dog eats feline (and other species’) feces, licks his anus, can’t brush his own teeth, and regularly picks up that tennis ball which has rolled through the fecal-contaminated soil prevalent at most dog parks.
One of the best-known (and rightfully fearsome sounding) examples of zoonotic diseases known in veterinary medicine is cat scratch disease (CSD), which can be transferred through the bite or scratch of a cat harboring the bacteria, which is transmitted to the cat through the bite of a blood-thirsty flea. I’ve had a client infected with CSD from her cat, which is more concerning in individuals suffering from immune system compromise (pregnancy, cancer, HIV, etc.). People with normally-functioning immune systems are less prone to developing the disease when scratched or bitten by a Bartonella-positive cat.
So, watching pet owners being woken by the seemingly harmful pawing motion or bite from their dog or cat makes the veterinary-focused part of my psyche cringe with concerns for zoonotic disease transmission. Therefore, I stress that using good sanitary habits can help to keep you from catching illnesses from your pet, including:
- Thoroughly washing hands with soap and warm water after touching their pets
- Regularly grooming your pet (bathing, brushing, etc.) and restricting the pet’s access to dirty environments to help keep the fur from collecting pathogens
- Never permitting pets to lick your face, especially directly on the lips or in the mouth
- Reducing your pet’s levels of oral cavity bacteria through daily tooth and gum brushing, or swabbing with a DentAcetic wipe
- Minimizing external parasite infestation on your pet by using topical or oral species-appropriate veterinary products; this isextremely crucial
- Vacuuming the home space shared by people and pets (and disposing of the canister contents or bag into a sealed receptacle) and washing all human and animal bedding on a weekly basis
These are all common sense aspects of pet care which we owners occasionally take for granted. We need to be reminded of their importance to avoid otherwise preventable human health problems.
Dr. Patrick Mahaney
Last reviewed on July 31, 2015