There are many health benefits for your family of owning a pet. They can increase opportunities to exercise, get outside, and socialize. Regular walking or playing with pets can decrease blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and triglyceride levels. Pets can help manage loneliness and depression by giving us companionship.
Studies have shown that the bond between people and their pets can increase fitness, lower stress, and bring happiness to their owners.
However, pets can sometimes carry harmful germs that can make us sick even when the pet appears healthy. Below are some tips to help you and your family stay healthy while enjoying your pets of choice.
Picking the right pet
Before adopting a new pet, make sure that it is the right one for you and your family. Do some research beforehand about the specific needs of the animal.
Ask yourself these questions before getting a pet:
- How long will this animal live?
- What does the pet eat?
- How much exercise does the pet need?
- How large will it become?
- How much will it cost for veterinary care?
- Do I have enough time to properly care for and clean up after the pet?
- What type of habitat does this pet need to be healthy?
- What type of exercise does this pet need?
- Are pets allowed in my house, apartment, or condominium?
- Are there young children, older people, or people with weak immune systems who will care for or be around the pet?
Pets to avoid because they present health risks
Because young children are more likely to get sick from harmful germs that animals can carry, children under 5 years old should avoid contact with the following animals:
- Reptiles (lizards, snakes, and turtles)
- Amphibians (frogs, toads, newts, and salamanders)
- Backyard poultry, including baby chicks or ducklings
- Rodents (rats, mice, hamsters, gerbils, and guinea pigs)
Keep wild animals wild. Although they may look cute and cuddly, avoid touching wild animals to reduce the risk of illness and injury. Don’t encourage wild animals such as raccoons, prairie dogs, or wild rodents to come into your home by feeding them. You might find a young animal that appears to be abandoned and want to rescue it, but often its parent is close by.
Additionally, children younger than 5 years old should be extra cautious when visiting farms and when they’re around areas with farm animals, including animals at petting zoos and fairs.
How to keep children healthy around animals
Infants and young children are more likely to get a serious illness from germs that animals can carry because their immune systems are still developing. This is because young children often touch surfaces that may be contaminated with animal feces, and they like to put their hands in their mouths. Objects like pacifiers may fall on dirty surfaces and then be placed in an infant’s mouth. Young children are less likely to wash their hands well.
But there’s good news. You can take steps to keep your kids healthy while still enjoying animals. Follow these steps to keep infants and young children healthy around animals:
- Always supervise children around animals.
- Never allow children to kiss animals or put their hands or other objects into their mouths after handling animals.
- Always wash children’s hands thoroughly with soap and water right after touching, feeding, or caring for animals or cleaning their habitats. Adults should supervise hand washing for young children. Whether you are playing with, feeding, or cleaning up after your pet, it is important to wash your hands to help reduce the risk of getting sick from germs pets can carry. If you or a family member are concerned about illness, talk to a doctor and mention the animals you’ve had contact with recently. Always wash hands after touching or playing with your pet, feeding your pet or handling pet food, handling pet habitats or equipment (cages, tanks, toys, food and water dishes, etc.), cleaning up after pets, and leaving areas where animals live (coops, barns, stalls, etc.), even if you did not touch an animal
- Keep your pet healthy. Whether you have a dog, cat, horse, parakeet, gerbil, bearded dragon, or other fun pet, providing regular, life-long veterinary care is important for keeping your pet and family healthy. Regular veterinary visits are essential to good pet health. Talk to your pet’s veterinarian about how to keep your pet healthy. Provide your pet with a good diet, fresh water, clean bedding, and plenty of exercises. Keep up with your pet’s vaccines, deworming, and flea and tick control. Some pets can carry ticks that can spread serious diseases like Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever to people. In areas with plague-fleas can be a risk to both animals and their owners.
- Keep pets and their supplies out of the kitchen or other areas where you prepare, serve, or eat food. Disinfect pet habitats and supplies outside the house when possible. Never clean supplies in the kitchen sink, food preparation areas, or bathroom sink. If that is not possible, then clean them in a laundry sink or bathtub and then disinfect that area immediately afterward. Pets can contaminate surfaces in your home with germs—you don’t have to touch pets to get sick from their germs.
- Clean your cat’s litter box. Cat poop can contain parasites and germs that can be harmful to people. Scoop cat litter daily (especially if anyone in the home is pregnant) and change it at least twice weekly. Pregnant women should not clean cat litter. Cover sandboxes so cats don’t use them as a litter box.
- Scoop up your dog’s poop. Always remove your dog’s feces from your yard and public places by using a bag, and dispose of it in proper areas. Keep children away from areas that might contain dog or cat poop to prevent them from getting roundworms and hookworms.
- Avoid rough play with animals to prevent bites and scratches. Teach children to play with animals appropriately. There’s a lot of parents who post what they think are cute or funny videos of their little ones getting too close for comfort to their dogs and cats. What you don’t see are the videos with dangerous or tragic consequences. Don’t be one of those parents. Also, do not let your kids near pets that are eating.
- Clean bites and scratches immediately with soap and water and seek medical care if the wound is serious or becomes red, painful, warm, or swollen; the animal appears sick; or if you don’t know the animal’s vaccination status.
- Enjoy wildlife from a safe distance to avoid illness and injury.
Pets are part of our everyday lives. As they provide us with companionship and a host of health benefits, we also need to supervise our kids around them and clean up after our animals. Practicing healthy pet habits will help you and your kids enjoy having pets around the home and protect against pet-related illnesses.
This article is based on the following articles: “About pets & people,” “Infants and young children: How to keep children healthy around animals,” “How to stay healthy around pets.“