Thursday, September 29, 2011

Children and Pets

Dr. B.J.C.Perera MBBS(Ceylon), DCH(Ceylon), DCH(England), MD(Paediatrics), FRCP(Edinburgh), FRCP(London), FRCPCH(United Kingdom), FSLCPaed, FCCP, FCGP(Sri Lanka) Consultant Paediatrician


* Pets can make a world of difference to the life of a child.

* Having a pet is a great learning experience for a child.

* Pets can also cause or transmit certain diseases.

* It is essential to provide appropriate vaccines for pets.

* Children should be taught the "dos and don’ts" about caring for pets

Children by nature are gentle creatures and one of the joys of childhood is to have a pet at home. Caring for a pet offers a tremendous learning experience for children, teaching them responsibility, gentleness together with respect for nature and other living beings. Like adults, they can benefit from the companionship, affection and relationships they share with their pets. In return, many animals reared as pets by a child get tremendously attached to the child and may even be a constant companion. They would try to give back the love that a child showers on them. The lessons that a child can learn from caring for a pet are very many and are always of benefit when the child grows up.

However, animals and pets can transmit infections to humans, especially to children. If a household has a pet or the parents are thinking of getting one, it is important to know the basics of looking after the pet and what steps should be taken to ensure that the relationship with the pet is a wholesome and healthy one.

Like people, all animals carry germs. Illnesses common among house pets such as distemper, canine parvovirus and heartworms cannot be transmitted to humans. However, pets also carry certain bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi that can cause illness if transmitted to humans. Humans get these animal-borne diseases when they are bitten or scratched or have contact with an animal’s waste, saliva or dander. These diseases can affect humans in many ways. They are of greatest concern to young children, infants, pregnant women and people whose immune systems have been compromised by illness or disease. Infants and young children younger than 5 years old are at risk because their immune systems are still developing and some infections that might make an adult just mildly sick can be more serious for them.

But one does not need to give up the family’s furry friends either. Pets can enrich the family life and taking a few precautions can protect children from getting sick. Protecting a family from pet-related infections begins before bringing a pet home. For instance, reptiles and amphibians should not be allowed as pets in any household with infants and young children. One also needs to consider the health and age of the children before getting a pet. A pet that would require frequent handling is not recommended for any immune-compromised child such as one who has an inherited immune disorder, one who has cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy, or a child who needs to use steroids for treatment of a disease.

Dogs and cats are popular pets but can carry infections. One such infection is Campylobacter infection. This disease can be transmitted by household pets carrying Campylobacter jejuni bacteria, which cause diarrhoea, abdominal pain and fever in humans. The bacteria may be in the intestinal tract of infected dogs, cats, hamsters, birds, and certain farm animals. A person can become infected through contact with contaminated water, faeces, undercooked meat or unpasteurized milk. More than 2 million cases of campylobacter infection occur each year in the United States of America and C. jejuni is now the leading cause of bacterial gastroenteritis in that country. Campylobacter infections are contagious, especially among members of the same family and those in childcare or preschools. Infection needs to be treated with antibiotics.

Cat scratch disease can occur when a person is bitten or scratched by a cat infected with Bartonella henselae bacteria. Symptoms include swollen and tender lymph nodes, fever, headaches and fatigue. The disease usually resolve without treatment. However, a doctor may prescribe antibiotics if the infection is severe. Cat scratch disease rarely causes long-term complications.

Rabies is a very serious illness caused by a virus that enters the body through a bite or wound contaminated by the saliva from an infected animal. Animals that may carry the rabies virus include dogs, cats, raccoons, bats, skunks and foxes. Widespread immunization of dogs and cats has decreased the transmission of rabies in these animals and in people. It must be stressed without any reservation that human rabies is an incurable and mandatorily fatal disease. There is no form of treatment that can cure the disease and those affected would die. It is absolutely essential that pets are vaccinated against rabies and proper booster doses of the vaccine are given at the appropriate times. Vaccination could be undertaken through government veterinary clinics or through the private sector facilities.

Ringworm, also called tinea is a skin infection caused by several types of fungi found in the soil and on the skin of humans and pets. It is not a disease caused by worms despite the name "ringworm". Children can get ringworm from touching infected animals such as dogs and cats. Ringworm of the skin, or tinea corporis, is a dry, scaly round area with a raised red bumpy border and a clear centre. When the scalp is affected, the area may be flaky, red, or swollen. Often there are bald patches. Ringworm is treated with antifungal medications including shampoo, creams and oral medicines.

Toxocariasis is an illness caused by the parasitic roundworm Toxocara which lives in the intestines of dogs and cats. The eggs from the worms are passed in the stools of dogs and cats, often contaminating soil where children play. When a child ingests the contaminated soil, the eggs hatch in the intestine and the larvae spread to other organs, an infection known as visceral larva migrans. Symptoms include fever, cough or wheezing, enlarged liver, rash, or swollen lymph nodes. Symptoms may resolve on their own or a doctor may prescribe drugs to kill the larvae. When the larvae in the intestine make their way through the bloodstream to the eye, it is known as ocular toxocariasis, or ocular larva migrans, which may lead to a permanent loss of vision. This is a very serious infection of the eye and needs urgent treatment.

Toxoplasmosis is a disease that is contracted after contact with a parasite found in cat faeces. In most healthy people, toxoplasmosis infection produces no symptoms. When symptoms do occur they may include swollen glands, fatigue, muscle pain, fever, sore throat, and a rash. In pregnant women, toxoplasmosis can cause miscarriage, premature births, and severe illness and blindness in newborns. People whose immune systems have been weakened by illnesses such as HIV or cancer are at risk for severe complications from toxoplasmosis infection.

Dog and cat bites may become infected and cause serious problems, particularly bites to the face and hands. Cat bites tend to be worse, partly because they are deeper puncture wounds. Significant bites should be washed out thoroughly. Often these bite wounds require treatment in a doctor’s office or emergency room and antibiotics are sometimes necessary.

Pet birds, even if they are kept in a cage, may be capable of transmitting several diseases. One such disease is cryptococcosis. It is a fungal disease contracted when someone inhales organisms found in bird droppings, especially from pigeons and the organism can cause pneumonia. People with weakened immune systems from illnesses such as HIV or cancer are at increased risk of contracting this disease and developing serious complications such as meningitis. Another disease is psittacosis, also known as parrot fever, which is a bacterial illness that can occur from contact with infected bird faeces or with the dust that accumulates in birdcages. Symptoms include coughing, high fever, and headache. It is treated with antibiotics.

Handling and caring for rodents, including hamsters and gerbils as well as fish may place children at risk for some diseases. One such disease is lymphocytic choreo-meningitis. People can contract lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus by inhaling particles that come from urine, faeces or saliva from infected rodents, such as mice and hamsters. This disease can cause flu-like symptoms with fever, fatigue, headaches, muscle aches, nausea, and vomiting and may even lead to meningitis (an inflammation of the membrane that surrounds the brain and spinal cord) and encephalitis (an inflammation of the brain itself). As with most viruses, there is no specific treatment, but some patients may require hospitalization. Like toxoplasmosis, LCM may be passed from infected mother to the fetus.

If a family decides to adopt a pet, they need to make sure that some basic information such as the breed, shelter and the source of the pet is checked beforehand. The pet has to be appropriately vaccinated. Once a decision is made, it is a good idea to get the pet checked by a veterinary surgeon. Appropriate and adequate nutrition has to be provided for the pet and provide plenty of fresh water. One should avoid feeding a pet with raw meat because this can be a source of infection.

Children should be taught some basic rules in caring for a pet. They should be instructed to always wash the hands, especially after touching a pet, handling pet food or cleaning the pet’s cage, tank or litter box. They need to wear gloves when cleaning up after an animal’s waste and for bird droppings, it is best to wear a dust mask over the nose and mouth to prevent inhaling urine or faecal particles. Children should not clean cages or litter boxes unless there is supervision or until they have demonstrated that they can do this safely and responsibly. Children should avoid kissing or touching pets with the mouth because infections can be transmitted by saliva. They should not share food with the pet. The pet’s living area should be kept clean and free of waste. The parents should not allow pets to come into areas where food is prepared or handled. One should not bathe a pet or clean aquariums in the kitchen sink or bathtub. The pet should be washed outdoors. Children should be advised to avoid strange animals or those that appear sick and they should never adopt a wild animal as a pet. For the pet’s comfort and for the safety of the family, one needs to control flea and tick problems in the pet. Fleas and ticks can carry diseases that may be easily passed to children. Oral and topical medications are available for flea and tick control. Pets need to be checked regularly for fleas and ticks as well as bites and scratches that may make them more susceptible to infection.

However, in spite of all the care provided, some pets finally succumb to various diseases or to old age. Some pets are also prone to get malignant diseases. It could be a devastating thing for a child to lose a pet. The child needs to be helped through that sort of difficult period so that there would not be any lasting effects. It may sometimes be necessary to get a replacement pet to ameliorate the effects of the loss of a pet.
Courtesy - The Island