I once met a person who said her family consists of four members. Next, she said she’s an only child. Doing the math was easy, so I couldn’t help but ask about the two-member discrepancy.
“Oh! The cats of course!” was the answer that I got, but didn’t expect. Like this person, pets owners have for a long time confessed to feeling that their pets are part of their families.
While planning their meals, their outings and their travel, some form of arrangement must include these non-human family members.
Whereas understanding the responsibilities of keeping the pets healthy, very few, however, believe that they can get sick from their own pets.
Trips to the vet are in fact a tool not only to keep the animal healthy, but also to keep the owner safe from zoonotic diseases.
“Zoonotic diseases are the diseases that can transmit between man and animal. These diseases can transmit both ways,” explained Dr. Rabei Saleh, Professor of Preventive Medicine at the Faculty of Veterinarian Medicine in Suez Canal University in Egypt.
This disease doesn’t have to be physical. Saleh explained that even fearing or disliking animals is a zoonotic disease. Nevertheless, biologists define zoonotic diseases as contagious diseases transmitted by microscopic living organisms.
With the world now facing a potential pandemic as bird flu spreads, pets owners are becoming more aware of the latent danger that lurks behind their beloved pets.
These dangers depend on the kind of pet as well as the kind of health-care it receives. Saleh emphasized the importance of frequent trips to the vet among other needed precautionary measures.
Enshrined in Shari’ah
Keeping pets is well enshrined in the doctrines of Islam with scholars citing different Hadiths of the Prophet (SAW) on this. That’s in addition to the example of one of his Companions, Abu Hurairah (may Allah be pleased with him).
In Islam, Allah has a relationship with animals: He cares for them and they praise Him with their own languages. Islamic Shari’ah prohibits baiting animals for entertainment or gambling, it’s clearly haram to harm any living organism.
The Qur’an has an entire chapter -number 6- named after animals, it’s Surat Surah Al-An’am. In this Surah, Allah clearly states that animals form communities just like humans.
“There is not an animal (that lives) on the earth, nor a being that flies on its wings, but (forms part of) communities like you. Nothing have we omitted from the Book, and they (all) shall be gathered to their Lord in the end.” (Surat Al-An’am 6:38).
The Qur’an often calls upon humans to observe animals (such as the flight of birds, or the camel) as a marvel of creation, and sign of God’s omnipotence and wisdom.
Allah also informs in the Qur’an that animals benefit humans in many ways, and that they are aesthetically pleasing to look at. This is used a proof of God’s benevolence.
Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is also reported by Ibn Omar and Abdallah bin Al-As to have said: “There is no man who kills [even] a sparrow or anything smaller, without its deserving it, but God will question him about it [on the judgment day]” and “Whoever is kind to the creatures of God is kind to himself.”
The prophetic hadith of the advice to kill animals that were fawasiq aka harmful ones within the holy area of Mecca only is applicable just to poisonous or disease-borne creatures like rats and scorpions. While killing any unharmful non-domesticated animal that isn’t life-threatening is forbidden in Islam.
Islamic Shari’ah necessitates treating dogs and pigs with mercy and kindness despite the prohibition of eating pork and despite the impurity of dog’s saliva.
In a narration by Abu Hurayrah, the Prophet (PBUH) told his companions of the virtue of saving the life of a dog by giving it water and quenching its thirst. His story referred to a man who was blessed by Allah for giving water to a thirsty dog.
The Scottish historian William Montgomery Watt states that Prophet Muhammad’s kindness to animals was remarkable; he cites an instance of the prophet, while traveling to Mecca in 630 CE, posting sentries to ensure that a female dog and her newborn puppies weren’t disturbed.
Cats and Dogs
Rabies is the disease most commonly transmitted from cats and dogs to humans. Saleh noted that owners should vaccinate their pets annually against the disease from the age of four years. Home-based animals are safe from the disease.
However, the problem can arise when owners take them outside. “If an infected animal bite your animal it can contract the disease,” he explained.
When dealing with rabies, it is important to note two things, Saleh said. The first is that the disease is only transferable through biting. The second is that a quick response is vital should this occur.
“If you have a dog and notice any kind of behavioral changes such as mad behavior or lack of recognition of the owner, you need to immediately send the dog to a veterinarian hospital. If for any reason you can’t seek medical attention for the animal, then you must put it to sleep immediately or it becomes a health hazard,” he said.
Saleh explained that there are two kinds of rabies; furious and dumb. In furious rabies, the symptoms are evident.
Dumb rabies is more dangerous because the infected animal doesn’t show any symptoms but still carries the disease. “In both cases owners should keep a history of being bitten by another animal,” he said.
So what should one do when bitten by an animal? This depends on the degree of laceration (tear) in the bite as well as its location.
The disease enters through the nerve fibers that feed the area of the wound. Hence, the closer the bite is to the brain, the more dangerous.
As soon as the bite occurs, the person must flush out the wound with water. “When doing that, the patient is in fact doing two things: mechanically removing the virus or diluting it. Also, you shouldn’t cover or stitch the wound because the virus is more potent when isolated from air,” explained Saleh.
The second step to take after bitting accidents is to receive rabies shots. You must take the first shot against rabies immediately on the same day of the bite.
Bitten person takes another shots three days later, then after one and two weeks. The final shot is taken 28 days after the bite. The animal that bit the person should be located and placed under observation.
If the animal is rabid then it will die within two weeks. At this point the person must take all five shots. If the animal lives, then the two remaining shots aren’t necessary.
A parasitic disease more commonly related to cats is toxoplasmosis. The disease, explained Saleh, is caused by a microscopic, crescent-shaped parasite which live in the blood.
The parasite might go through other intermediary hosts during its life cycle, but its final host and site of reproduction is the cat.
Eventually, the parasite transfers through the cat’s feces and so any contact with the litter box of an infected cat is dangerous.
The most dangerous effect of toxoplasmosis is on pregnant women. According to Saleh, it can result in miscarriages. It can also result in encephalitis (infection of the brain) in the fetus, which could lead to blindness in the newborn baby.
Other congenital diseases that might arise as a result of infection with this disease include hydrocephalus (a head filled with water) and microcephalus (small head), depending on the stage of pregnancy at the time of infection.
“This is why pregnant women should never change the litter box. If the woman must do so, the scooping method should avoid breathing in its vapor,” explained Saleh.
Intermediary hosts of the parasite include sheep, rodents, cattle and birds. Pets can acquire the disease by eating uncooked processed meat. Hence, you should prevent your cat from catching mice or hunt for its food.
A vet can diagnose the disease even if there isn’t any apparent symptom in animals. After three to four months, the infection goes away on its own. There is no vaccine for cats or humans against the parasite.
Dogs can transfer roundworms to their owners. In some extreme cases, these worms can cause damage to the liver, eyes or brain.
“Dogs need to visit the doctors annually for de-worming and owners should check the stool every six months,” said Saleh.
A parasitic dermatological disease that could be passed on to humans from their dogs is mange (or scabies in humans). The parasites make tunnels under the skin.
“Symptoms for dogs include itching, hair loss, wrinkling skin and a terrible smell. As soon as a dog contracts the disease, you should take it to hospital and isolate it from people. If the disease becomes difficult to treat, the vet may need to put the dog to sleep in order to avoid contaminating humans and other dogs,” he said.
If the dog or the owner show symptoms of itching, medical attention needs to be sought immediately.
An important note, Saleh said, is that dogs normally shed hair twice a year. Owners shouldn’t confuse this with mange. Though, if there are circular or irregular patches of hair loss, a visit to the vet is in order.
Birds and Fish
Psittacosis, or the parrot disease, is transferred by birds that live in the wild. Sick birds show signs of sleepiness, shivering, weight loss, breathing difficulties and diarrhea. Human symptoms include fever, headaches and pneumonia.
The disease is contracted through the handling of infected animals. In addition, the waste or dust from the cages of infected birds could cause eye-irritation so take care while handling them.
On the other hand, fish form the least hazard in terms of zoonotic diseases. “The most important precaution is when you feed them live worms since these come from waste channels and carry along with them any presiding diseases in those channels,” Saleh explained.
“The water in which [fish are] kept also needs to be clean and the filters disinfected regularly otherwise the fish owner may get gastro-intestinal disorders such as diarrhea or vomiting. Also, it is important to wash the hands after any contact with aquarium water. Owners should change water frequently and disinfect the filters regularly,” he said.
In Need of Attention
Overall, Dr. Saleh said that it’s important to note that all pets are generally safe if there are right precautions.
“The most important thing is to look at the place where this pet will stay, the capabilities of the owner and the general health status of those in the house.”
Pets aren’t toys. You should take of them, even psychologically, and they need to visit the vet regularly.
“Small animals don’t need much exercise, but bigger animals do. They need to walk half an hour in the morning and another in the evening. It could be the case that you can only take care of some fish in the water. Dogs, however, are the most demanding.”
Additionally, Saleh advised that it is best to avoid all kinds of wild pets such as turtles and wild birds like parrots. For all animals though, feces are mostly the carriers of diseases and owners must handle the litter boxes with care.
“It’s important to wash the hands well after handling the pet and not to kiss it on the mouth or allow it to lick us,” he said.
“When feeding the animal, it’s important to feed them either pet food or leftovers which the owner himself could eat; not spoilt food,” Saleh continued.
Pet owners should always check with a doctor if they or their animals develop any kind of symptoms such as the flu, rash, skin irritation or itching. “It’s important at this point to tell your doctor that you have a pet,” he said.
Finally, Saleh stressed that despite the potential problems, keeping pets is beneficial for children because it teaches responsibility and discipline that remain with the child till the end of life.
This article is from Science’s archive and we’ve originally published it on an earlier date.