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Undoubtedly the benefits of bringing a pet into the family are terrific. Known to bring joy and cheer into our lives they can also lower stress levels. It’s no wonder that dogs are being welcomed into hospitals to help boost the morale of patients.
A family pet can also be of great benefit to the development of young children. The physical aspects of walking the dog and running around playing ball are essential during an age when children are prone to sitting in front of the TV or computer screen. They can practise their motor skills from a young age by scooping food and pouring water in their pets’ bowls and a relationship with a pet can enhance the social and emotional skills of a child. They learn about compassion, empathy and responsibility, and in turn their confidence and self esteem are boosted.
The therapeutic benefits far outweigh the risks that some parents may associate with pets in terms of hygiene or allergies.
The benefits of owning a pet
Experts say that exposure to pets during childhood boosts the developing immune system. Some children, of course, are genuinely allergic to animals, however for those who are not, research shows that early exposure to certain bacteria helps prevent the development of common allergies and that pet owners tend to get sick less often than those that don’t live with a pet.
In 2012, a study established that children who lived with dogs had fewer respiratory problems, had fewer ear infections and were overall healthier in their first year of life than those who didn’t live with a canine friend.
Are there any risks?
Despite all the positive aspects of pet owning, there are certain risks involved that owners need to be aware of. Around 50% of all households in the UK have a pet and owners should be conscious of the fact that not only can pets trigger allergies there is also the possible risk of transfer of disease from domestic animals to humans.
Vets recommend that you don’t sleep with your animal whether on your bed or in your room as animal allergens from the skin, coat, saliva and urine can cause allergic reactions. Pets can also carry pathogens such as salmonella around their mouths, on their paws and fur, as well as in their faeces – which can be passed to humans.
Stroking a pet’s fur and not washing your hands means you could be at risk. However, simple steps such as always washing your hands after handling their toys, feeding bowls and litter trays, and keeping your pet dishes and utensils apart from the ones that you use for you and your family will help protect cross contamination.
What infections can you get?
Domestic animals carry organisms that can cause disease including bacterial, viral, parasitic and fungal species. There are several ways that infections can be passed from animals to humans – through stroking the fur and not washing your hands, being in close contact with animal faeces, cross-contamination from feeding or water bowls and utensils, or being bitten.
Fungal infections of the skin such as ringworm can be passed to humans by direct contact with the animal and people working with animals can be more prone to this infection.
Other diseases that can be passed to humans include toxocariasis, an infection caused by worms in dog or cat faeces, and toxoplasmosis caused by a parasite found in cat faeces. Pets can also carry pathogens such as salmonella on their fur, paws and mouth and in their faeces, so unless you have a rigid cleaning routine, your pet could pose a risk to you and your family’s health.
What can you do about it?
Although you don’t want to become paranoid about the domesticated animals that are living under your roof, you need to be aware of the dangers in order to set up a regular routine that the family can follow that allows you and your furry and feathery friends to live in harmony.
Your rules and routine will become habitual and could protect your whole family from serious illness. First of all there are simple ways to protect you and your family from an allergic reaction. Visit the NHS website for more information on this.
- Designate pet free zones in your home such as the bedrooms
- Always wash your hands after handling or stroking pets
- Remember to wash your pets bedding on a regular basis
- Try to have hardwood floors and blinds instead of carpets and curtains
Extra protection needs to be undertaken to safeguard at-risk groups such as pregnant women, the elderly, those with chronic illness or compromised immune systems (such as people with ME/CFS or HIV), and young children.
By creating habitual hygienic routines that are easy to follow, you will enjoy a happy and healthy life with your pets.
There are many ways to reduce the risk of infection. Here are some simple measures you can use:
- Get into the habit of a good hand washing routine every time you touch a pet – the simplest and most effective way to prevent the spread of infection.
- Never touch an animal and then touch your face or mouth before washing your hands
- Keep all pets immunised, wormed and treated for fleas
- Clean cages and bedding regularly
- Always use gloves and disposable towels when clearing up animal faeces
- Regularly clean floors with a disinfectant
- Regularly wipe surfaces with disposable antibacterial wipes
- Keep pets away from food preparation surfaces
- Always keep human food and pet food separate
- Wash hands after preparing food for animals or after touching their bowls
- Store all their dishes and utensils separately from your own dishes
- Consider hiring a cleaner to come in weekly and ensure your home is given a thorough once over.
By developing these hygienic practices you can not only protect your family from risk of allergies and infections but you will be installing good habits and teaching your children invaluable lessons that will protect them in the future.