The researchers cite one case where a 60-year-old patient with chronic eczema died of septic shock and renal failure caused by Capnocytophaga canimorsus, a bacteria found in the gums of dogs and cats, after his dog licked his legs. In another, a 69-year-old man who had recently had a hip replacement was infected by Pasteurella multocida bacteria. The man said his dog shared his bed before and after the operation, sleeping under the covers on the same side of the bed as his affected leg.
So, should you worry?
Maybe. Although cases of zoonoses — disease transmitted from animals to humans — from pet owners sleeping next to their pets are rare, they can be "very nasty" when they do occur, Chomel told USA Today in January.
Dangers include plague (yep, the one also known as the Black Death), chagas disease (which can cause life-threatening heart and digestive system problems), cat scratch disease (which can actually result not just from being scratched but from sleeping with or being licked by a household pet.), parasitic infections such as hookworm and bacteria known to cause meningitis, staph infections and more. Risks are higher for young children and people with compromised immune systems.
A survey of pet owners by the American Pet Products Association found that 62 percent of cats sleep with adult owners (13 percent of cats sleep with children), while 62 percent of small dogs, 41 percent of medium sized dogs and 32 percent of large dogs do so. A recent CDC study says that anywhere from 14 percent to 62 percent of pets in the United States sleep in bed with humans.
For those unwilling to kick Fluffy or Fido out just yet, Chomel and Sun do offer some recommendations for reducing risk:
- Any area licked by a pet — especially for children or those with open wounds or a compromised immune system — should be immediately washed with soap and water.
- Pets should be regularly examined a veterinarian, routinely dewormed and kept free of parasites such as fleas.
- Treat puppies, or mama dogs during the last few weeks of pregnancy, with anthelmintics, drugs that expel parasitic worms.
The researchers also recommend that patients with recurrent MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) or iPasteurella infection that has no obvious cause should consider their exposure to dogs as a possible culprit.