Exotic Pets sometimes have Exotic Diseases

Ever since our ancestors first took up farming and herding we have relied on various animals for food, clothing, labor and—in the case of dogs and cats—companionship. The domestication of animals had obvious benefits for Neolithic peoples, but there was a downside none of them were aware of. Close proximity allowed the transfer of many animal diseases to humans. Tuberculosis, smallpox, measles, leprosy and diphtheria, for example, probably began as “zoonotic diseases” that made successful jumps to humans. Today, few people still farm or herd, and even fewer people share living quarters with the family livestock. Most of us, however, have pets and many pets can harbor potential pathogens. “Exotic” pets also have the potential to pass on exotic diseases. I used to think Rhodesian ridgebacks and six-toed cats were exotic until 32 people in the Midwest contracted monkeypox. Monkeypox, a sometimes fatal virus from West Africa, is a close cousin of smallpox. The Midwesterners caught monkeypox from their pet prairie dogs, and the prairie dogs probably caught it from exotic, giant rats imported from the Gambia in 2003. Why anyone would want a giant Gambian rat is a mystery, but the consequences of importing these jungle rodents are obvious. In the U.S., regulatory oversight of imported animals and the interstate pet trade is weak and fragmented among various agencies. In addition to the overwhelming legal trade, there is also a $3 billion illegal trade in plants and animals into the U.S. Even without giant Gambian rats and their monkeypox hitchhikers, cute little prairie dogs shipped within the U.S. present other hazards. Some have been found to harbor tularemia bacteria—one of the government’s feared bioterrorism agents. Others caught in the wilds of

Colorado and South Dakota could harbor fleas that carry the agent of bubonic plague. Tularemia infections also can be picked up from hamster bites. A young boy was treated for such an infection in Colorado last year. American rats may not be any safer than Gambian imports. In 2003 two women in Florida and Washington State died from rat bites. The bites delivered a rare bacterium called Streptobacillus moniliformis, which caused sudden septic shock and death. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 98 civet cats were imported into the U.S. during 2001-2002. Civets are wild Asian carnivores, eaten by some Chinese, and suspected of being the source of the SARS virus. Presumably, the civets brought here became pets and not dinner. In any case, they will remain a tiny immigrant minority; the CDC issued an embargo against their importation effective January 13, 2004. Better late than never. Flying squirrels are common in the U.S., but most people never see them. They’re nocturnal, and like spy planes, prefer to fly after everyone else has gone to bed. Still, some people like to keep them as pets—my uncle had two. The problem is they can harbor a microbe called, Rickettsia prowazekii, which causes typhus. Typhus is famous for igniting ancient epidemics and undermining the fighting strength of armies. In March 2002, it also put two men in West Virginia and Georgia in the hospital with severe febrile illness. Typhus remains very rare in the U.S., but since 1976 there have been 41 documented human cases. Another nocturnal creature some people favor as an exotic pet is the hedgehog. These hand-size creatures live in burrows, eat insects, and are covered with spongy spines, which they frequently coat with a frothy layer of saliva. About 40,000 U.S. households own one, though they are illegal in some states, including the District of Columbia. Salmonella and herpesvirus

are two zoonotic agents hedgehogs are known to carry. Others may also harbor exotic viruses that cause hemorrhagic fever or encephalitis. Reptiles—snakes, lizards and turtles—are also common pets and common sources of salmonella gastroenteritis. The CDC estimates 3% of U.S. homes have at least one reptile pet. Personally, I’m sticking with cats and dogs. After thousands of years of co-habitation, we know each other pretty well. Cats and dogs are hardly disease-free, but what you may catch from them is not likely stump the local hospital or veterinary clinic. A recent study of dog and cat ownership in Austria, for example, found no evidence of increased risk of zoonotic infections such as ehrlichiosis, Q fever or cat-scratch disease. Perhaps the most common infection associated with common house cats is Cat-Scratch Disease (CSD), caused by the bacterium Bartonella henselae. In healthy people, CSD is usually a benign, self-limiting illness. Complications may arise in persons with weakened immune systems, AIDS, and other underlying illnesses. For more information about pets and diseases, visit the Healthy Pets/Healthy People web site at: www.cdc.gov/healthypets/index.htm.

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