Sudden outbreaks like swine or bird flu remind us all too well that humans are not immune to diseases animals carry. These particular illnesses are most likely to affect people who work with animals regularly, like in a farm setting, but being at risk to an animal's health hazards can happen in your own home. Improper care for a pet can lead to diseases, and a misbehaved pet can be dangerous to families.
At the same time, being around animals has been shown to increase a person's well-being. The American Heart Association released a study this year that showed people who own pets have improved cardiovascular health. Animals often are used to help children with special needs or in visits to hospitals. Their presence can abate loneliness, increase altruism and reduce anxiety.
[Read: How to Lose Weight With Your Pet.]
With pet ownership at 62 percent among American households, according to the American Pet Products Association, it is important people understand their risks and benefits. Having a healthy pet requires first learning about the animal you want, then caring and providing for it accordingly, says Joan Hendricks, the Gilbert S. Kahn dean of veterinary medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. U.S. News turned to Hendricks for advice about pet and family dynamics.
Understand your pet's natural tendencies. Before you adopt a pet, know what role you want it to have in your family. Do you want a pet for companionship or to guard the house? Do you expect that your pet will join you on your morning run? Do you have the finances to pay someone to take care of your pet while you work or while you're on business trips?
"People should know enough about their animal when they get it and after they get it," Hendricks says. "They also must be open to the idea that they may not know as much as they thought." Even dog breeds vary in terms of what they need from people, Hendricks says. Some dogs are meant to work, some need intellectual stimulation and some need little exercise. Bulldogs, for instance, are happy to lie at home sleeping a lot and show affection when you return from work. Great Danes also don't need to run around much.
"If a pet's specific needs are not attended to then they will not be good pets," Hendricks says. They can even get sick with gastrointestinal upsets and develop behavior disorders – which could lead to wrecking furniture – if a family is not the right match. There are cases when pets aren't the right fit for the family, she says, which is why it's important to become informed before you adopt.
When it comes to exotic animals, such as tarantulas or pythons, there isn't as much information available for pet owners. "There's always a health concern for veterinarians that anyone who has one of these animals doesn't know how to take care of them," she says.
Train your pet properly. Animal bites are the single biggest health risk to kids when it comes to pets, Hendricks says. Avoiding this danger returns to the first principle of understanding your pet's needs.
"People treat animals as if they were people, and they treat us as if we were their species," she says. For example, dogs often bite each other out of play, but owners must reinforce that this kind of behavior isn't acceptable when playing with people. Work with your pet to manage its behavior so everyone is happy. Make sure your children show mutual respect by not teasing or harming the pet, she says.
An irritated cat, for instance, could scratch its owner and spread bartonellosis, commonly called "cat scratch disease," which causes swollen lymph nodes in people as well as possible fever, headache and fatigue, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Clean up the mess. An unkempt litter box or waste that has not been removed from your yard is an open invitation for diseases. Children under age 5 are most at risk because they're more likely to put their fingers in their mouths after touching contaminated areas, according to the CDC. One common scenario occurs when children eat dirt or walk outside barefoot and contract hookworms, which cause itchy skin, intestinal bleeding and abdominal pain.