Pets Can Pose Health Risks for Children

Salmonella in pet food, pesticides in flea collars are among dangers.

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The bowl of pet food on the kitchen floor can make babies and toddlers seriously ill, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It turns out that salmonella bacteria in dried dog and cat food sparked an outbreak of salmonella infections between 2006 to 2008. Half of the 79 cases reported were in children ages 2 and under.

Salmonella can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children and the elderly, and it's no fun for healthy adults, either. People infected with salmonella usually suffer four to seven days of fever, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain.

How did toddlers get salmonella from pet food? My first guess would have been from eating it; what small kid wouldn't appreciate that Mom keeps a bowl of snacks out for him and the dog? But it turns out that the CDC investigators, who reported their findings in the current Pediatrics, couldn't connect the illnesses to children actually eating pet food. More likely is that the bugs were spread by direct contact with pets, and through contact with the floor and other parts of the home. Infection was more likely if pet bowls were kept in the kitchen, where I bet 99 percent of families feed their pets.

But dried dog food is not the only pet grub that poses human health risks: Food for pet reptiles can harbor salmonella, too. On August 2, the CDC warned that 34 people had fallen ill after handling frozen mice and rats used for feeding pet reptiles. And on August 9, the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning saying that frozen mice from MiceDirect may be implicated.

Flea collars and lotions used to control fleas and ticks on pets can expose family members to toxic insecticides. Newer flea-control products use non-toxic insect-growth regulators, but many products that use toxic organophosphate pesticides are still on the market. Organophosphates are toxic to neurons, and children are particularly susceptible to their effects because they often touch pets, and then put their hands in their mouths. The Natural Resources Defense Council has issued a comprehensive report on the health risks of flea and tick products.

For pet-owning families, these strategies can help keep everyone healthy:

  • Wash your hands and use hand sanitizer after feeding pets or handling pet food and treats.
  • Move pet feeding areas out of the kitchen, or clean the floor frequently if you decide to keep pet bowls there.
  • If your dog or cat has diarrhea, wash your hands carefully after cleaning up feces, and clean floors and other surfaces with a mild bleach solution. Check with your veterinarian, who can test your pet for salmonella.
  • Wash hands and use hand sanitizer after playing with pet reptiles. Snakes and lizards can have salmonella for years while remaining healthy themselves.
  • Avoid flea and tick-control products that contain organophosphate pesticides like chlorpyrifos, dichlorvos, phosmet, naled, tetrachlorvinphos, diazinon, and malathion. Wash and comb pets instead, or use products that contain insect-growth regulators that are not toxic to humans.
  •  Avoid exotic pets like hedgehogs, which can spread salmonella, yersinia pseudotuberculosis (which causes appendicitis-like abdominal pain), and rabies. Even the humble hamster can spread salmonella, another good reason to make sure family members wash hands after playing with pets.
  • Needless to say, most of us are not going to ditch our beloved pets because of pesky germs. And we are no doubt exposed to more germs from our fellow humans. But most parents, myself included, don't think much about potential risks in a lowly bowl of dog chow. I know I'll now be better about washing my hands after feeding furry friends.