Children and Pets

Dr. Parang Mehta, MD.

Most children love pets, and given the chance, play, sleep and practically live with them.  A child with a pet has a faithful, dependable companion, and is envied by his friends.  Having a pet provides companionship, love, and learning opportunities, but it also carries the risk of diseases.

Allergic diseases

Children who are exposed to allergens develop the allergy quicker and more strongly.  Exposure to allergens early in life is a risk factor for the development of sensitization and allergic disease.

Cats release an allergen, fel d 1, into the environment which can provoke and worsen asthma.  Similarly, dogs, too, release an antigen.  These are two of the commonest antigens involved in childhood allergic diseases.  66% of children sensitised to cat antigen have been found to have either asthma, eczema, or rhinitis.  About a third of childhood asthma can be attributed to allergen sensitisation, and this may not become obvious for some months after a pet is acquired.

Animal antigens are tenacious -- they persist in the home environment for months after the animal is removed.  If there is a family history of allergic disorders, the animal should be removed from the home several months before the baby is born.  If a child has allergy, the family must avoid contact with the animal implicated, because animal antigens persist on clothes and reach the home.

Infective diseases

Animals carry many types of germs and parasites.  Not all of them are capable of infecting humans and causing disease, but significant illness is caused by pets.  

The scratch of a cat can cause Cat Scratch disease.  It is caused by bacteria called Bartonella henselae, and is sometimes difficult to diagnose because of unusual features (it usually shows up as enlargement of the lymph nodes and fever).

Worm infestation is common in cats and dogs.  These can infest children, especially those under the age of 3 years.  These non human worms are dangerous when they infest children, and cause abscesses, pneumonia, blindness, seizures and other brain disease, and several other manifestations.

Psittacosis (Ornithosis), also known as Parrot Fever, is a pneumonia caused by bacteria called Chlamydia.  It is found in birds like parrots and macaws, and is acquired by humans while cleaning the bird cage, or handling a sick bird.  This infection can cause illness ranging from mild influenza like illness to life-threatening pneumonia.  Infections by Chlamydia do not respond to the antibiotics usually given for pneumonia.

Microsporum canis is a fungal infection that animals (mainly cats) can pass on to humans, which manifests as ringworm.  This is an important cause of ringworm in children, especially of the head and neck.

Other diseases that cats carry and can infect children with are Toxoplasmosis, and diarrhoea owing to Cryptosporidium parvum.

Reptiles as pets carry a specific health hazard -- salmonellosis.  Salmonella are bacteria, and can be transmitted to children sharing a home with snakes, turtles, salamanders, and other reptiles.  These bacteria cause abdominal cramps, bloody loose motions, and fever, and are difficult to treat with antibiotics.  Cats and dogs can also transmit this infection.

Animal Bites

While dogs are usually affectionate and loyal towards their owners, they do sometimes bite them.  Most dog bites occur from pets or neighborhood dogs.  Cats, on the other hand, do not bite unless provoked.  Exotic animals that are not fully tamed are likely to bite.

Animals have many germs in their mouth that can cause disease in humans.  The germs exist in the animals' saliva, and it is important to realise that a lick can also transmit the disease.  Since animals frequently lick their claws, the germs are carried there, and a scratch may be as bad as a bite.

The most dangerous infection transmitted by animal bites is rabies (hydrophobia).  This is a viral infection, and is almost always fatal.  It can be prevented by giving the bitten person a course of the rabies vaccine as soon as possible after the bite.  Depending on the severity and part of the body bitten, other treatment may also be needed.  All pets should be vaccinated against rabies, for the protection of the family and others.

Dogs and cats usually will not bite humans without cause.  An animal which bites a child without provocation has a possibility of being rabid, and the child should receive the anti rabies vaccine as soon as possible.  Rabies can be transmitted by any warm blooded animal, although most human rabies cases result from dog bites.

A common infection transmitted by animal bites is Pasteurella multocida.  This germ exists in the mouth of healthy animals like cats and dogs, and can cause infections at the site of a bite.  Rarely, it has been known to cause serious infections like meningitis.  Most commonly, animal bites will result in redness, pain, and swelling around the wound, pus and abscess formation, redness of the involved lymph vessels (lymphangitis), and fever.  Apart from P.   multocida, other germs involved may be Pasteurella canis, Pasteurella septica, streptococci, staphylococci, moraxella, and neisseria.  Cat bites can also transmit Cat Scratch disease.

Other Problems

Pets often carry fleas and ticks, and these can transfer to children.  They cause severe itching, allergies, and can transmit some dangerous diseases.  Good pet hygiene is important to avoid these problems.

Dog bites can be very violent, and fractures and other tissue injuries can occur, especially in young children.  Dog bite injuries in children often occur on the head and neck, and deaths are known.  These usually result from injury to the large blood vessels in the neck.  Very aggressive breeds of dogs should not be given to children as pets, and even a dog of normally tame habits should be monitored for unprovoked aggression.

Last Revision: February 14, 2016

Pet Safety Measures

Pets and Asthma

It has long been known that pets provoke asthma in children who have asthma.  Most furry animals shed hair all the time, and there are other allergens in their saliva, urine, stools, etc.  Exposure to these allergens can sensitise a child, leading to airway hyperreactivity and asthma.

If a child has asthma, ideally, it is time to say good bye to pets.  If this can't be done, keep the animal out of the bedroom, and shampoo frequently.

If there is a family history of allergic diseases, take steps to spare the baby exposure to allergens.  This includes removal of pets.  This should be done several months before the baby is due, for animal allergens can persist in the indoor environment for months.

Paradoxically, heavy exposure to animals can prevent against asthma, it has been found.  Children who grow up on farms, or in a house with several pets, have a lesser chance of developing asthma.

Contact Information

Dr. Parang Mehta,
Mehta Childcare,
Opposite Putli, Sagrampura,
Surat, India.    Tel: +91 9429486624.