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.
Humans who have contact with animal waste can also be exposed to E. coli, salmonella and other bacteria. Left untreated, the diseases can be passed between humans and pets. In humans, the symptoms are diarrhea, fever and stomach cramps. To avoid contamination, be sure to wash your hands before meals and after handling pets.
Keep medical records updated. If your pet doesn't have parasites and is healthy, he likely won't spread diseases to people, Hendricks points out. When you first get a young pet, you'll need to take multiple visits to a veterinarian for a series of vaccinations. Dogs and cats should also be dewormed by a veterinarian, the CDC recommends. Hendricks adds that it's a good idea to see a veterinarian at least once a year for the pet's well-being, even if there appears to be nothing wrong.
A pet's teeth can often get neglected, she says. Dogs, for instance, can get periodontal, or gum, disease, which causes them to get sick, makes eating painful and gives them bad breath, she says. Veterinarians often encourage owners to brush their dog's teeth. Maintaining healthy teeth can avoid hefty veterinary bills later, as some dogs have to get their teeth pulled or undergo anesthesia for cleaning.
Feed your pet correctly. When it comes to a diet for your pet, Hendricks suggests keeping it boring, meaning that picking one type of food and sticking to the same amount every day is best for the animal. The science behind pet food is superb, she says, and what you buy at the store in the pet section offers a complete diet.
Some people enjoy varying their pet's diet, Hendricks says, but they should avoid doing so because new dog food could upset their stomachs. People also tend to feed animals too much, which has led to an obesity epidemic in pets. Feeding a pet gives families a sense of routine and altruism, which can contribute to mental wellness. But for a pet to live a long life, it's important to keep the diet simple. For owners looking to change things up, try buying a new leash or playing a new game instead, she suggests.
It's important not to feed pets scraps from the table. If a dog enjoys vegetables, though, such as carrots or lettuce, use them as treats because they are no-calorie foods. Dogs can be fed vegetarian diets, she says, but owners have to be careful. Cats will get sick on vegetarian diets and also do not like variety in their meals.
Consider pet insurance. Only 1 percent of Americans have health insurance for their pets, according to the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. It is a good idea to consider getting pet health insurance, Hendricks says, adding that it can be heartbreaking for a family to have a sick pet they can't afford to treat. Some families, though, will have the insurance for a long time and have difficulty seeing the benefit if they don't use it, she admits.
However, when families know which breed they want, it can help to anticipate health problems. Golden Retrievers, for instance, are most likely to get lymphosarcoma – a cancer common in dogs – while Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are more prone to get heart disease.
Pet owners can apply for pet insurance online by visiting Trupanion, 24PetWatch or the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Depending on your pet's age and breed, or whether they are taking medication, policies can cost anywhere from $10 a month for emergency care, to $20 to $40 a month for more robust plans that cover accidents, illnesses and hereditary issues. Some also charge deductibles from $100 to $500