Pets in child care facilities and contact with animals brought to the facility or during visits to farms, petting zoos, and breeding facilities offer rich opportunities for learning. However, they pose risks that must be addressed. Many pet owners and teachers/caregivers are unaware of the potential risks posed by exposure to animals. Most people are unaware that animals that appear healthy may carry disease-causing germs. Infectious diseases, injuries, and other health problems can occur after contact with animals.
Cats and kittens can carry disease-causing germs without showing signs of illness themselves. Some human diseases associated with cats are Campylobacter infection, a cause of diarrhea; cat-scratch disease, a cause of a generalized illness from a scratch or bite that transmits bacteria (Bartonella henselae), carried by about 40% of cats (especially kittens) without symptoms; mites, a cause of itching and raised bumps on human skin from mites feeding on the skin; and intestinal parasites. For more information about diseases spread by cats, go to www.cdc.gov/healthypets/pets/cats.html.
Infections From Animal Contact
Individual cases and outbreaks associated with Salmonella species, Escherichia coli O157:H7, and Cryptosporidium species are among the most commonly reported infections after animal exposure. Many recent outbreaks of diarrhea or vomiting diseases have been linked to contact with ruminant livestock (cattle, sheep, and goats); poultry, including chicks, chickens, and ducks; reptiles, especially small turtles; amphibians; and rodents. Other domestic and wild animals are potential sources of illness. Infected animals often are asymptomatic carriers of germs that can cause disease in humans. Direct contact with animals (especially young animals), contamination of the environment or food or water sources, and inadequate hand hygiene facilities at animal exhibits have been responsible for infection of people who visit these settings.
In addition to direct contact, indirect contact with animals can be a source of illness (eg, contact with water in a reptile tank, contaminated barriers or fencing used to contain animals). Salmonella infections are an example of an infection associated with direct contact with certain animals and indirect contact via animal products. The US Food and Drug Administration ban on commercial distribution of turtles with shells less than 4 inches long in 1975 resulted in a sustained reduction of human Salmonella infections. Salmonella infections have also been described as a result of contact with aquatic frogs, iguanas, hedgehogs, hamsters, mice, and other rodents and with poultry or backyard flocks, including chicks, chickens, ducks, ducklings, geese, goslings, and turkeys.
Some pet products and contact with environments that have been occupied by animals are sources of Salmonella infections, especially among young children. Raw and dry dog and cat food and pet treats, such as pig ears and feeder rodents (live and frozen) used to feed reptiles and amphibians, have been associated with Salmonella infections. Pet food should not be handled where human food is prepared. Food bowls should be carefully cleaned and disinfected after contact with pet foods. Be sure to practice careful hand hygiene after handling animal foods or treats or touching anything in the animal’s environment. For more details, go to www.cdc.gov/zoonotic/gi.
Nontraditional pets pose a special risk of infection and injury. Most imported, nonnative animal species are caught in the wild rather than bred in captivity. These animals are held and transported in close contact with multiple other species. This increases the risk of spreading germs that can cause disease for humans and domestic animals. Some nonnative animals are brought into the United States illegally, bypassing rules established to reduce introduction of disease and potentially dangerous animals. Some species of nonnative animals may also be bred in captivity in North America.
The behavior of captive wildlife and wildlife hybrids cannot be predicted. From early life to fully grown, the physical and behavioral characteristics of animals can result in an increased risk of injuries to children. These potential risks are enhanced when these animals are cared for by people who do not fully understand how the animals spread disease and how to prevent it, animal behavior, and how to maintain appropriate facilities, environment, and nutrition for captive animals.
Among nontraditional pets, reptiles, amphibians, and poultry pose a particular risk because of high asymptomatic carriage rates of Salmonella species, the intermittent shedding of Salmonella organisms in their feces, and persistence of Salmonella organisms in the environment. In recent years, multiple large outbreaks of salmonellosis have been spread by contact with these animals.
Reptiles should not be kept as pets for children and should not be allowed in any child care program or school. Salmonella inhabits the gastrointestinal tract and, thus, the environment of reptiles. Therefore, any contact with reptiles or their habitat may cause Salmonella infection in children. Additionally, bites from reptiles may result in Salmonella or other bacterial infection.