A team of veterinary researchers in California recently warned against allowing pets to sleep with their owners, citing studies showing that this practice can favor the transmission of a number of diseases. Their search of medical literature turned up cases of meningitis, staphylococcus infections, bubonic plague, Chagas disease (caused by a parasite and spread to animals and humans from infected bugs) and cat-scratch disease that were passed from animals to humans via licking, kissing or sleeping in the same bed. But they conceded that cases of serious infections passed from animals to humans in this way are rare.
People who are immune-compromised and the very young are at greatest risk, the researchers noted. Some of the cases cited in the study, which was published in the February 2011 issue of the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, were old, going back as far as 1974. Between 21 and 33 percent of the estimated 60 million pet dogs in the United States (including mine), sleep on or in their owners' beds. Of the 75 million cats, 60 percent sleep with their owners.
Some of the diseases mentioned, like plague and Chagas' disease, aren't threats in most of the U.S. Cat scratch fever is a bacterial disease transmitted by a bite or scratch from an infected cat. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) about 40% of cats carry the bug at some time in their lives but show no signs of illness. Here, too, the danger is greatest for those who are immune-compromised. To avoid cat scratch fever, the CDC advises against playing rough with cats, especially kittens, and not letting your cat lick any open wound on your body. If you are scratched, wash the area immediately with soap and water.
I doubt if many pet owners are going to lock their dogs and cats out of the bedroom because of this alarmist report. Do make sure your animal companions are in good health though, and get in the habit of washing your hands after playing with them.
Andrew Weil, M.D.