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Debate: Do pets pose a significant hygiene risk?

Debate: Do pets pose a significant hygiene risk?

When it comes to hygiene, pet owners are a varied bunch – from the relaxed cat-lover who happily permits everything from counter-surfing to face-licking, to the anxious dog owner who won't allow their companion upstairs and insists on post-fuss hand-washing. But who's right? Here, Sophie Mackenzie looks at the science behind pets and hygiene, and persuades some brave pet owners to reveal their breaches of best practice.

It's well known that people with pets, on the whole, are healthier and live longer than those without. This is partly because of the stress-busting effect our companion animals have, but also because exposure to them boosts immunity, especially in children. So at what point does close proximity to pets stop being beneficial and start being a bit unsanitary, or even dangerous?

Many streetwise moggies are keen hunters of their humans' food and drink. Most cat owners will admit that they've got no way of knowing whether their feline forager has helped herself to water from a glass by their bed, and don't really mind if she does – but others let their cat get away with even more.

'My pet is forever prowling the kitchen counters looking for tasty scraps,' says Burmese-cat owner Martin. 'And if he steals some of the milk from my morning cereal, I'll happily finish the bowl.'

Rachel has two black-and-white rescue moggies and says they rule the roost at home: 'I don't think anything of it if one of my cats eats something off my plate. They sit on my lap while I eat so it's impossible to keep their whiskery noses out of my dinner!'

Hungry hounds can also wreak havoc in their quest for a free lunch. Judith has a Boxer called Harry. 'He is just tall enough to reach the kitchen counter,' she says, 'and if I don't watch him all the time he snuffles and slobbers all over it looking for leftovers. It's all very well when I'm on hand with my antibacterial wipes but I can't spend all day cleaning up after him!'

For many dogs, licking is a way of showing their affection for their owners – and getting to know strangers, who may not welcome a doggy snog! Sian owns a five-year-old Staffie cross called Maud. She says: 'I've trained her to respond to a request for "kisses", so she knows when face-licking is okay and when it's not.'

Robert confesses that he's more or less given up limiting his dogs' friendly licking: 'My two Collies are just licky dogs,' he says. 'I've spent a long time teaching them what "down" and "no" mean, so they'll generally stay away from faces, but hands are fair game.'


According to the official advice, all these owners – and their pets – need to mend their ways. The NHS highlights two main areas of concern when it comes to pets and our health: allergies and infections.

Most pet allergies can be kept under control by managing your home so everyone stays healthy and comfortable. Wooden floors rather than carpets will keep allergens to a minimum, as will keeping bedrooms pet-free and opening windows regularly, and anti-histamines can be used when there's a flare-up. But infections transmitted by pets are potentially more dangerous, and more difficult to diagnose. Thankfully they are much less common than allergies, but it's a good idea to be aware of the risks:

  • Ringworm can be passed from animals – dogs, cats and hamsters – to humans through contact with their fur
  • In rare cases, a tick bite can lead to Lyme disease
  • Toxocariasis is a rare infection caused by roundworm parasites, spread by contact with animals' faeces
  • Toxoplasmosis can be caused by contact with undercooked and infected meat, or with cat faeces


The above may sound nasty, but your chances of contracting any of these through contact with your pet are small, and a little common sense goes a long way towards reducing the risk even further:

  • Teach your children to wash their hands before eating and after playing outside, and keep them away from cats' litter trays and dog litter bins in parks
  • Pay as much attention to your pet's health as you do to your own, with regular veterinary check-ups, immunisations, checks for fleas and ticks, and deworming
  • If your dog has been rolling in mud or paddling in a local pond, give him a bath before allowing him back into the house (this will protect your furniture as well as your health!)
  • Toxoplasmosis infection can be dangerous during pregnancy, so expectant mums should be let off litter-tray duty
  • Wash your pets' food and water bowls regularly, keep kitchen work surfaces clean and always wash your hands before preparing food (but you do that anyway, don't you?)

Do you let your pet get away with less-than-desirable behaviour, or are you a stickler for hygiene? Please share your thoughts with us below.

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