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Let sleeping dogs lie next to you?

A report on infectious diseases challenges the wisdom of sharing your bed

[From Tufts May 2011 Issue]

An article in a scientific journal published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made headlines nationwide when it warned that people can — and often do — get too close to their dogs. Bruno B. Chomel of UC Davis and Ben Sun of the California Department of Public Health, writing in Emerging Infectious Diseases, said that about 50 percent of owners in the U.S. allow their dogs to sleep on their beds, but doing so puts them at risk for health problems.

The authors, both veterinarians, also noted that “although uncommon with healthy pets, the risk for transmission of zoonotic [communicable to people] agents by close contact between pets and their owners through bed sharing, kissing and licking is real and has even been documented for life-threatening infections.” The implication for some dog lovers: Share your bed with your dog and you take your life into your own hands.

Living proof 

Such headlines do not impress Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. “My dog Rusty sleeps on my bed and so does my cat, Griswold,” Dr. Dodman says. “The chances of anything happening are very small. I’m living proof.”

Dr. Dodman, who is board-certified in veterinary behavior and in anesthesiology, doesn’t deny that dogs can transmit diseases to people either directly or indirectly. Among the best known are rabies, hookworm, roundworm, tick-borne diseases, leptospirosis, scabies, ringworm and fleas. One case cited by Drs. Chomel and Sun was of a man who contracted meningitis when his dog, who slept under the covers with him, licked the man’s hip replacement wound. Another case: An Australian woman died of septicemia, which is bacteria in the blood, and multi-organ failure after her puppy licked a minor burn wound on her foot.

Transmission is not a one-way street, however; people can make dogs sick, spreading hookworm and methicillin-resistant staphylococcus, among other diseases.

Rather than forgo the pleasures of close-contact companionship with their dogs, Dr. Dodman suggests owners use common sense: 

Take care of your dog. Keep him healthy and parasite free. Make sure he has regular checkups and do what’s necessary to prevent worms, fleas and ticks. In addition, be conscientious about immunizing him against rabies and have any potentially transmissible diseases treated.

Take care of yourself. Get regular checkups, practice good nutrition, exercise regularly and follow your doctor’s recommendations to maintain optimum health. Healthy individuals have strong immune systems that are better able to resist communicable disease than the very young and individuals with compromised immune systems.

Maintain cleanliness. Wash your hands after handling your dog, picking up after him and handling his food (raw food can be contaminated with bacteria such as salmonella, E. coli and campylobacter). 

Be alert to physical and behavioral changes in your dog. If he shows signs of illness, take him to

the veterinarian for an exam and keep him off your bed until the condition resolves. Many com-municable diseases are easy for an owner to detect. Scabies, for example, causes a dog to exhibit an obvious itchy rash. “You’d have to be blind not to notice that something’s wrong,” says Dr. Dodman. 

Keep your perspective. No knowledgeable person would deny that dogs can transmit some diseases to people. The question is: How likely is that transmission to occur, and do other activities carry more risk? “There are risks associated with everyday life, but some people don’t seem to be able to assign a level of risk to them,” Dr. Dodman says. “Determine what the risk is. The risks entailed in driving a car are much greater than those from a dog sleeping with you.” 

In the end, a healthy, conscientious owner with a healthy dog is highly unlikely to become seriously ill from sharing a bed with him, Dr. Dodman says. “There is a laundry list of things that could happen, but if the dog is well kept — that is, gets regular veterinary care, is wormed and vaccinated, and as long as he has no overt disease — I say, enjoy your dog in any way that suits you, and if that involves letting him share your bed, so be it.” n

Susan McCullough is a writer in Vienna, Va.

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