Reverse Zoonosis: Can You Make Your Pet Sick?

For good reason, there is a great deal of interest in the transmission of diseases from animals to humans. Recently, however, medical researchers have started to ask the opposite question: can we make animals sick?
[Kitten being checked by doctor]
The transmission of diseases from humans to animals is a growing area of concern.

Swine and bird flu are two of the most recent and startling examples of animals passing diseases to humans.

Other unpleasant pet-to-human medical problems include ringworm, roundworm, and hookworm, as well as beaver fever, toxoplasmosis, and rabies.

Although these animal-to-human transmissions are relatively well described, pathogenic traffic in the opposite direction is much less well understood.

In this Spotlight feature, we will investigate whether pathogens can travel from humans to animals in a process referred to as reverse zoonosis, or anthroponosis.

A review of current literature on this topic, published in PLOS One in 2014, identified a wealth of examples. They found cases of bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi jumping from human hosts to animal-kind to occur across 56 countries on every continent with the exception of Antarctica.

The importance of reverse zoonoses

Reverse zoonosis is not just an interesting concept; it is an important global issue. Animals bred for food are transported far and wide, interacting with wild species that they would never naturally have encountered. With a rapid growth in animal production and an increase in the movement of both animals and people, a human pathogen within an animal could potentially move thousands of miles in just 24 hours.

For instance, during the H1N1 influenza pandemic of 2009, the virus was able to travel the breadth of the planet and from pigs to humans in a matter of months.

On top of the increasing animal trade, we have an ever-growing pet industry. An estimated 68 percent of people in the United States owned a pet in 2015 and 2016, up from 56 percent in 1988. Humans, animals, and disease are more entwined than ever.

Understanding how diseases work across all scenarios is essential for the future success of the human food chain and our survival as a species.

Although guidelines, protocols, and legislation attempt to keep on top of the increased movement of animals across the planet, the size of the issue is immense. Above and beyond legal farms and markets, zoos and aquariums, there is also an illegal meat trade that has the potential to affect the situation significantly. For instance, some estimate that 5 tons of illegal bushmeat move through Paris’ Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport every week in personal luggage.

Early research into human to animal pathogens

The fact that diseases can pass from humans to animals is, perhaps, not such a surprise. An estimated 61.6 percent of human pathogens are regarded as multiple species pathogens and are able to infect a range of animals. Also, over 77 percent of pathogens that infect livestock are multiple species pathogens.

Although investigating these interactions is not a new endeavor, interest in the field has grown and developed over recent years. One of the earliest studies demonstrating reverse zoonosis was conducted in 1988 and looked at dermatophytes – fungi that cause superficial infections of the skin, nails, and hair – including Microsporum and Trichophyton. The authors found that these fungi could be transmitted from animal to animal, human to human, animal to human, and human to animal.

In the mid-1990s, focus moved from fungal reverse zoonoses to bacteria, such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and Mycobacterium tuberculosis.

In the late 1990s, interest in viruses picked up, peaking during the 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic. From 2000, studies began to emerge investigating the ability of certain parasites to pass from human to animal, including Giardia duodenalis (the parasite responsible of giardiasis) and Cryptosporidium parvum (a microscopic parasite that causes the diarrheal disease cryptosporidiosis).

Below, we outline a selection of pathogens that have been observed jumping the gap between human and animal.

MRSA transferred from humans to their pets

MRSA is sometimes called a “superbug” because of its resilience to antibiotics. Infections caused by MRSA are notoriously difficult to treat and have the potential to be fatal.

Although cases of MRSA in the U.S. appear to be declining, it is still a significant public health concern.

A study, published in the journal Veterinary Microbiology in 2006, looked at MRSA in pets and its transmission between humans and animals. They concluded that:

“Transmission of MRSA between humans and animals, in both directions, was suspected. MRSA appears to be an emerging veterinary and zoonotic pathogen.”

The paper mentions a specific case in which a couple was repeatedly infected with MRSA. The re-infections only stopped once their dog was identified as the source and treated. It is presumed that the dog was initially infected by the couple and then passed the infection back to them each time they had been successfully treated.

With the inherent difficulties of treating MRSA, it is a genuine concern if animals – and particularly pets – are able to contract and transmit the pathogen. As the authors write: “The emergence of MRSA in household pets is of concern in terms of animal health, and perhaps more importantly, the potential for animals to act as sources of infection or colonization of human contacts.”

Tuberculosis in a Yorkshire terrier

[Yorkshire terrier panting]
Humans are capable of spreading TB across the species barrier.

A paper, published in 2004, describes the case of a 3-year-old Yorkshire terrier who arrived at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine with anorexia, vomiting, and a persistent cough.

After running a barrage of tests – including, sadly, an eventual postmortem – the authors concluded that it had contracted tuberculosis (TB) (Mycobacterium tuberculosis). The dog’s owner had been receiving treatment for TB for 6 months. This was the first documented transmission of TB from human to canine.

Cats are also susceptible to TB, but they most commonly catch cattle TB (M. bovis) or, more rarely, a version of the disease carried by birds (M. avium).

Dogs are not the only animals that can be affected by human borne TB. There have been a number of documented cases of elephants contracting TB from humans, including three from an exotic animal farm in Illinois.

Cats catching flu from humans

In 2009, the first recorded case of fatal human-to-cat transmission of the H1N1 flu virus occurred in Oregon. The owner of the cat had a severe case of influenza and had to be taken to the hospital. Her cat – an indoor cat with no exposure to other people or animals – later died of pneumonia caused by an H1N1 infection. Details of the case were published in the journal Veterinary Pathology.

In 2011 and 2012, researchers identified more than 13 cats and one dog with pandemic H1N1 infection that appeared to have come from human contact. Interestingly, the animals’ symptoms were similar to those experienced by human carriers – rapidly developing respiratory disease, a lack of appetite and, in some cases, death.

Fatal respiratory illnesses in chimpanzees

Of all the animals, gorillas and chimpanzees are perhaps most susceptible to human ailments, thanks to their similar genetic and physiological makeup. They are known to be vulnerable to a number of human diseases, including measles, pneumonia, influenza, a range of viruses, bacteria, and parasites.

Due to poaching, habitat loss, wildlife parks, zoos, and bushmeat hunting, humans more frequently come into close proximity with primates. Because of this, cross-species transmission of diseases is becoming a pressing concern.

In 2003, 2005, and 2006, outbreaks of fatal respiratory disease struck the wild chimpanzees at the Mahale Mountains National Park in Tanzania. Although measles and influenza were both considered, no evidence to support them as the cause could be found.

Researchers analyzed stool samples from affected and nonaffected individuals, and they identified that a human-related metapneumovirus – a virus that causes an upper respiratory infection – was to blame.

This dwindling population of chimpanzees was being decimated by a cold transferred to them by humans.

Similarly, in 2009, an outbreak of human metapneumovirus infection in Chicago, IL, spread from infected zookeepers to a group of captive chimpanzees. All seven became ill, and one died as a result.

African painted dogs

African painted dogs are an endangered species of wild dog. As part of the conservation effort, a study published in 2010 investigated the parasites present in the species’ feces.

Infection by Giardia duodenalis, a parasite that lives in the small intestine, was found in 26 percent of wild animals and 62 percent of captive animals.

Although common in domestic cats and dogs, G. duodenalis is not a parasite naturally found in African painted dogs. Additionally, the strains of parasite found in the dogs’ feces were of a subtype commonly associated with humans, rather than the subtypes usually seen in pet dogs.

Symptoms of the disease can include diarrhea, nausea, abdominal discomfort, and reduced appetite.

The authors concluded that the parasites had entered the population from human-dog interactions and, from then on, were passed from dog to dog, becoming a new potential threat to their already uncertain future.

Although research into reverse zoonosis is relatively scant, it is an important and urgent field of study. If human pathogens are able to infect other species, and these species are able to interact with humans and travel great distances, it is a pandemic waiting in the wings.

We already know that the flu virus can mutate quickly, and by living in different species, it has the chance to change and mutate in ways that it could not in humans. As these pathogens change, they might become less dangerous to humans. On the other side of the coin, however, some might become increasingly deadly.

Smoking Is Damaging Your Pet’s Health, Researchers Warn

If you made a New Year’s resolution to stop smoking and are already struggling to stick to it, a new study may offer a further incentive: quitting the habit can benefit your pet’s health as well as your own.
[A cat paw on an ashtray]
Pets in smoking households are at greater risk for weight gain, cell damage, and some cancers, according to researchers.

Smoking is the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the US, accounting for around 1 in 5 deaths annually.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), smoking causes around 90% of all lung cancer deaths in men and women, and it is also a risk factor for heart disease, stroke, and numerous other illnesses.

But it is not only smokers themselves who are at risk of such conditions; since 1964, around 2.5 million non-smokers in the US have died from exposure to secondhand smoke.

With this in mind, it is perhaps unsurprising that pets living in households where someone smokes are at greater risk for poor health.

Previous research from Clare Knottenbelt, professor of small animal medicine and oncology at the University of Glasgow in the UK, and colleagues has shown that dogs living in a smoking household ingest a high amount of tobacco smoke.

For this latest study – which is ongoing – the team set out to investigate how tobacco smoke exposure impacts the health of cats and dogs.

Cats at greatest risk from smoke exposure

Prof. Knottenbelt and colleagues analyzed the nicotine levels in the animals’ fur and looked at whether such levels were associated with any health problems. Additionally, they assessed the testicles of dogs following castration in order to identify any signs of cell damage.

Compared with pets living in non-smoking households, the researchers found that those living in smoking households may be at greater risk of cell damage, some cancers and weight gain.

Cats are most at risk, according to the researchers, because they ingest more smoke than dogs – regardless of whether or not they have access to outdoors. The team speculates that this may be down to the extensive self-grooming cats engage in, causing them to ingest more tobacco toxins.

When analyzing the testicles of castrated dogs from smoking households, the researchers identified a gene that represents a sign of cell damage that is related to some cancers.

Furthermore, they found that dogs that lived in smoking households gained more weight after being neutered than dogs from non-smoking households.

Stopping smoking completely ‘best for pets’ health and well-being’

However, the researchers also found that these risks reduced when owners smoked outside, therefore reducing the amount of smoke their pets ingested.

While owners who reduced the number of cigarettes they smoked per day did reduce pets’ smoke exposure, it was not eliminated completely; cats from households that reduced their cigarette intake to less than 10 daily still had higher nicotine levels in their fur than those from non-smoking households.

The team suggests that pets may even be at greater risk of health problems from smoke exposure than children in smoking households, noting that because pets are lower in height, they are more likely to ingest third-hand smoke – that is, tobacco chemicals present in carpets and other surfaces.

While the research is ongoing, the team believes the results to date should act as a warning to smokers with pets. Prof. Knottenbelt says:

“As well as the risk to the smoker, there is the danger of secondhand smoke to others. Pet owners often do not think about the impact that smoking could have on their pets.

Whilst you can reduce the amount of smoke your pet is exposed to by smoking outdoors and by reducing the number of tobacco products smoked by the members of the household, stopping smoking completely is the best option for your pet’s future health and well-being.”

So, the next time you get the urge to light up and break that New Year’s resolution, just spare a thought for the health of your four-legged friend.

Children With Pets Have Less Stress

A pet dog may protect your child from childhood anxiety, according to research published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
[dog and girl]
Dogs follow human communication cues.

Childhood mental illness and obesity are significant public health concerns in the US. Since they start in childhood, preventive and early intervention approaches are needed.

Pet dogs have been linked with health benefits for adults, as promoted by the US Public Health Service (USPHS).

In Australia and the UK, dog ownership has been linked with increased physical activity among children aged 5-12 years and healthier body mass index (BMI) in those aged 5-6 years, due to walking and active play.

Such data is lacking in the US, so more evidence is needed to support pet ownership as a health strategy.

How can pets help mental health?

Pets can stimulate conversation, creating an ice-breaking effect that alleviates social anxiety. Dogs also tend to follow human communicative cues, which could help in emotional development.

Children aged 7-8 years have previously ranked pets higher than humans as providers of comfort and self-esteem, and as confidants.

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) with dogs reduces anxiety and arousal, alleviates separation anxiety and enhances attachment in children, thereby improving mental health and reducing developmental disorders.

Promoting children’s behavioral and emotional competence can help prevent mental, emotional and behavioral disorders during adulthood.

If exposure to pet dogs during childhood can help achieve these goals, positive child­-­dog interactions could prevent potential problems from developing during adolescence or later life.

However, there is little evidence for primary care providers to use when counseling parents regarding the benefits of pet dogs for young children.

Can a dog help improve BMI and anxiety?

In the current study, researchers from Bassett Medical Center in New York investigated the hypothesis that pet dogs are positively associated with healthy weight and mental health among children.

The study looked at 643 children aged 4-10 years, with an average age of 6.7 years, over an 18-month period in a pediatric primary care setting. Of these, 45% were female, 56% were privately insured and 58% had pet dogs in the home.

Before an annual visit, parents completed a health risk screener online, focusing on child BMI, physical activity, screen time, mental health and pet ownership.

Confounders included the fact that pet-owning families may differ from those without pets, for example in socioeconomic environment, a known social determinant of health; family income has been significantly associated with adolescent mental health, so the researchers adjusted for this factor.

Less stress for children with dogs

No difference was found between children with and without a pet dog regarding BMI, screen time or physical activity.

But among the 58% of children with a dog in the home, 12% tested positive on a screening test for anxiety, compared with 21% of children who did not have a pet dog.

A strength of the study is that it was carried out in a real-world setting and was based on children in preventive care, a far larger and more inclusive group than in previous studies, which focused on children with mental and developmental disorders.

Parental reporting could be a limitation, although statistics have shown high concordance between actual mental health issues and what parents say.

The researchers suggest:

“Interacting with a friendly dog also reduces cortisol levels, most likely through oxytocin release, which lessens physiologic responses to stress. These hormonal effects may underlie the observed emotional and behavioral benefits of animal-assisted therapy and pet dogs.”

Sharing A Bed With Your Pet Could Help You Sleep

Do you allow your pet to snuggle up with you in bed? If not, you might want to reconsider; new research finds that, for most people, the presence of a pet in the bedroom could benefit sleep.
[A dog sleeping on its owners bed]
Letting your four-legged companion sleep on the bed could help you sleep, according to new research.

Lead author Dr. Lois Krahn, of Mayo Clinic’s Center for Sleep Medicine in Scottsdale, AZ, and colleagues publish their findings in Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

It goes without saying that the US is a nation of animal lovers; almost 65% of American households own a pet, the most common companions being dogs and cats.

There have been numerous studies hailing the benefits of pet ownership. A recent study, for example, found that children with pet dogs experience less stress.

But according to Dr. Krahn and colleagues, there is limited quality research on how the presence of a pet in the bedroom may impact an owner’s sleep.

Pets in the bedroom may offer sense of security, relaxation

To address this research gap, the team surveyed 150 patients at the Center for Sleep Medicine, of whom 74 reported owning at least one pet – mostly dogs and cats.

The researchers gathered various information, including whether they allowed their pet to sleep in the bedroom and on the bed, and whether their pet is disruptive to their sleep.

Around 56% of pet owners reported allowing their pets to sleep in the bedroom or the bed.

Disruptive behaviors – including wandering, whimpering and snoring – were reported by 20% of owners who allowed their pet to sleep close by.

However, 41% of owners said their pets were not disruptive, with some – particularly individuals who were single – saying their presence even helped them sleep by providing security, companionship or relaxation.

One woman described her two small dogs as “bed warmers,” while another woman described her cat as “soothing” when it slept on her bed. A single 64-year-old woman said she felt more content when her dog slept under the covers by her feet.

“The value of these experiences, although poorly understood, cannot be dismissed because sleep is dependent on a state of physical and mental relaxation,” say the authors.

These findings may help doctors counsel patients with sleep problems, according to the researchers:

“Health care professionals working with patients with sleep concerns should inquire about the home sleep environment, and companion animals specifically, to help them find solutions and optimize their sleep.”

The authors note some limitations to their study. For example, they did not gather data assessing whether individuals being treated for sleep disorders – such as sleep apnea – find a pet sleeping nearby beneficial or more disruptive.

Additionally, the team notes there may have been some response bias from pet owners. “Respondents appeared eager to disclose whether they owned a companion animal and where it slept but seemed more reluctant to reveal any undesirable consequences,” they explain. “This response bias may have resulted in these data underreporting the frequency of disrupted sleep.”

Still, the researchers conclude further research investigating how having pets in the bedroom impacts a person’s sleep is warranted.

Pets Provide ‘Unique’ Support To People With Mental Illness

Our pets bring us joy and comfort, and they sometimes even help us when we are ill. But while the usefulness of a companion animal in the case of physical conditions has been accepted and well-documented by the medical community, there is less research available on the role of pets in mental illness. A new study aims to fill this gap by investigating how pets affect their owners’ mental well-being.
[man holding dog]
New research suggests most people with mental health problems see pets as their main source of support.

Millions of Americans are affected by a serious mental illness every year. In fact, approximately 1 in 5 adults in the United States reportedly experiences mental health problems in a given year.

Many of these people experience feelings of loneliness and isolation. Sometimes, being diagnosed with a long-term condition means losing one’s previous social status and connections with people.

These feelings have been documented in the psychiatric literature and connected with a patient’s so-called ontological security. The term refers to a sense of order, continuity, and meaning in a person’s life, together with a positive outlook on the future.

New research examines the impact of having a pet in the sense of ontological security and well-being of people with mental health problems.

Assessing the importance of pets for mental well-being

Researchers – led by D. Helen Brooks from the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom – interviewed 54 participants who were in the care of community-based mental health services in Manchester and South Hampton, U.K.

Participants were at least 18 years old and had all been diagnosed with severe mental illnesses.

The study consisted of qualitative, semi-structured interviews focussed on “ego” network mapping.

Interviews were conducted face-to-face at the participants’ home or an agreed local community facility, and they lasted between 20 and 90 minutes.

Researchers asked the participants to rate the importance of the members of their personal network, using a diagram of three concentric circles. Network members included friends, family, healthcare professionals, family, hobbies, places, activities, and objects.

Participants were asked the question, “Who or what do you think is most important to you in managing your mental health?” Then, they were asked to place the network members in the innermost circle if they considered them “most important,” the middle circle if the members were “important but not as important as the central circle,” and finally in the outer circle if the network members were “important but not as important as the two more central circles.”

The findings have been published in the open access journal BMC Psychiatry.

Sixty percent of patients see pets as ‘most important’ to their health

Of the interviewees, over 46 percent – 25 participants – placed a pet within the personal communities that help them manage their illness and everyday life.

Of these, the majority – 60 percent – placed their pet in the central, most important circle. Another 20 percent placed their pet in the second circle, and only 3 participants placed their pet in the third circle.

Patients reported various reasons why pets were so important to them. Some of them said they provided a much-needed distraction from symptoms and upsetting experiences, such as hearing voices, suicidal thoughts, or rumination.

Pets also gave their owners a feeling of responsibility, which in turn made the owners feel respected by other members of society. Having a pet was seen as an effective way to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness.

Caring for a pet also gave owners a feeling of being in control, as well as a feeling of security and routine. This provided participants with a sense of ontological security, by generating a sense of order and continuity to their day-to-day activities.

Finally, the feelings of acceptance and unconditional support that pets gave their owners contributed to an overall sense of meaning.

The study includes some of the participants’ testimonials. Pet owners are quoted as saying:

“When I’m feeling really low, [pets] are wonderful because they won’t leave my side for 2 days.”

“[Pets] don’t look at the scars on your arms, or they don’t question things, and they don’t question where you’ve been.”

“You just want to sink into a pit and just sort of retreat from the entire world, the cats force me to still be involved with the world.”

“I’m not thinking of the voices, I’m just thinking of the birds singing.”

“When [the dog] comes and sits up beside you on a night, it’s different, you know, like, he needs me as much as I need him.”

The ‘hidden’ but uniquely valuable work of pets

The findings highlight the importance of pets for the self-management of mental illness and everyday life.

Authors note that while the value and utility of pets for people with physical disabilities has been acknowledged by the medical community, the equally valuable role of pets in mental well-being remains largely ignored by healthcare professionals.

This makes Brooks and team refer to the work of pets as “hidden.” However, the authors conclude, it seems that the contribution pets bring their owners is “unique.”

“Analysis of an individual’s support network suggests a unique contribution from pets that extends beyond the support and connections provided by familial, friendship and weak tie connections,” the researchers say.

Dr. Brooks emphasizes the unique role of pets in improving the well-being of people with mental illness, and she calls for more holistic and creative approaches to enhance physical and mental well-being.

“Pets provided a unique form of validation through unconditional support, which they were often not receiving from other family or social relationships. Despite the identified benefits of pet ownership, pets were neither considered nor incorporated into the individual care plans for any of the people in our study. These insights provide the mental health community with possible areas to target intervention and potential ways in which to better involve people in their own mental health service provision through open discussion of what works best for them.”

Dr. Helen Brooks, lead author

Stress In Domestic Cats: New Review Discusses Causes And Management

Pet cats can suffer from stress triggered by a variety of events and situations, including conflicts with other cats and changes to routine. While cats can adapt, sometimes the stress can be too much, with negative effects on their health.
cat hiding
When stressed, cats may stop exploring and hide away for long periods of time.
Image credit: Marta Amat, Autonomous University of Barcelona

Writing in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, a group of veterinarians from the Autonomous University of Barcelona, Spain, explains that stress can impoverish the health of pet cats and increase their risk of disease.

The authors say that stress in pet cats can lead to behavior changes that are so difficult to manage that owners end up relinquishing them or having them euthanized.

In their paper, they discuss the causes and effects of stress in pet cats and strategies on how to prevent and reduce it.

Some of the main causes of stress that they discuss include changes to the pets’ environment, a barren environment, poor relationships with humans, conflicts with other cats and lack of control and predictability.

The authors note that other new changes – such as the arrival of a new member of the household, or a change in the daily routine – may also be stressful for the family’s feline pet.

Effects of stress in cats

In cats, stress distorts normal behavior – leading to reduction or excess of it. Generally, stress causes a domestic cat to become less active and playful and engage in markedly fewer positive interactions with other cats and humans.

The authors note that stress can also cause pet cats to eat less – or more, in some circumstances – than usual.

Stress can also trigger compulsive behavior in domestic cats, such as over-grooming, to the point where the animal loses its fur, showing patches of bare skin. But sometimes, stress can have the opposite effect, causing the cat to be neglectful about grooming.

Another sign of stress in a pet cat is increased urine spraying and increased vigilance – the animal can also become a lot more vocal than usual.

Cats are naturally curious and social animals, but when stressed, they may stop exploring and hide away for long periods of time. They can also become more aggressive.

Often, owners do not realize that stress is the reason their pet is behaving like this, say the authors, especially if there are no other, more obvious, signs.

Reducing conflict

In their review, the authors cover a range of strategies that owners can use to help reduce stress in their pet cat.

For example, they describe a three-phase method for reducing conflict between cats under the same roof.

It is important, to begin with, the cats are kept in separate parts of the house – each with its own space, litter tray, food and water bowls, scratching posts, toys, and so on.

Then, the cats are introduced to each other’s territory (without the other cat being present) – primarily so they can get used to each other’s smell. In this phase, the owner may also take a clean cloth, rub it on the scent gland of one cat, and then rub the scented cloth on the cheek of the other cat. The authors call this phase “olfactory habituation.”

When the cats appear to be relaxed in each other’s territory (still in the absence of the other), the next phase, called “visual habituation,” can begin. In this phase, the cats get to see each other through a safe barrier – for example a mesh door – while they are engaging in the pleasant activity.

The duration of these “visual contact” sessions is gradually increased, until the final phase, “direct contact habituation,” when the mesh or barrier is removed and the animals are allowed to naturally approach each other physically.

Environmental enrichment

Another stress reduction approach that the authors describe is environmental enrichment, where the physical, social and complexity dimensions of the cat’s life are enriched.

In this approach, the cat is given its own space with its own resources (food and water bowls, toys, etc), where it can feel comfortable and relaxed, without feeling threatened by other cats and dogs or other pets.

As cats spend a lot of time foraging, their space should be enriched with “puzzle feeders” and by hiding food in different places.

For cats that spend a lot of time indoors, their toys should be changed frequently to pique their interest and curiosity. Toys that mimic small, moving, catchable prey are particularly effective for this.

Another way to enrich the pet cat’s environment is to install shelves cat trees or platforms so the pet can explore its space vertically as well as horizontally. Cats like using height as a vantage point, and they like to hide in places above the ground.

The authors also mention studies that suggest giving cats places to hide can reduce stress.

Finally, cats, like humans, have different temperaments, and this needs to be considered when deciding strategies for breeding and raising cats, note the authors.

The full text of the study – which details all the strategies and discussion behind them – is available free to view for a short time at this link.

Older Adults Who Might Benefit From Pet Ownership Often Face Barriers

Older adults – particularly if they are struggling to make ends meet – are at high risk of illness and emotional disorders, the effects of which can be greatly reduced by pet ownership.
Older lady with pet cat
A pet provides companionship to an older person and can also boost their well-being.

In a paper published in the journal Activities, Adaption & Aging, researchers review the literature on pet ownership by older adults and, after outlining the potential benefits to their physical and emotional health, discuss the barriers they face in adopting pets.

Pets not only provide companionship, they can boost health in other ways, such as emotional support and increased physical activity.

However, older people face many hurdles to pet ownership: they may be worried about the cost, and whether they are physically fit enough to take care of and feed a pet. They may also worry about what might happen to their beloved companion should they become ill or die.

In their paper, to illustrate some of these barriers to pet ownership by older people, the researchers tell the story of Janet, a 75-year-old widow who is obese, has diabetes and suffers from arthritis.

Janet, who lives independently, describes herself as a cat lover. She has had many pet cats in the past and would like to have one now.

She has seen a story in the local news about an animal shelter and is thinking about adopting a cat from there but is concerned about the financial commitment and what would happen to the cat if she became ill or passed away. She is also concerned about what the adoption fees might be and the pet deposit fee in her apartment building.

The researchers note that Janet’s situation, the conflicts between her desire for a pet and her concerns, is very common. They note:

“There are many older adults who feel that they could benefit from pet ownership and there are far too many shelter animals in need of adoption. Yet barriers exist that can impede and often preclude this adoption process.”

The result is a pitiful lose-lose situation: older adults are denied the potential benefits of pet ownership, and the animals stay longer in the shelter and are at greater risk of euthanasia.

Perceptions of disability may be the barrier rather than actual physical limitations

In an effort to transform this into a win-win situation, the researchers discuss what might increase the chances for older adults to become pet owners – particularly those who perceive their chronic conditions and cost as the biggest hurdles.

While acknowledging that chronic conditions like arthritis, diabetes, hypertension, and obesity are rising, the authors note that these do not necessarily result in disability. Developed countries like the US may be seeing rising rates of these chronic illnesses, but levels of actual disability are falling, they add.

One explanation could be increased ways of supporting people with chronic conditions – such as the growth in home care and assistive technology. Perhaps, the authors suggest:

“The true barrier to pet ownership for older adults may lie more in the perception of disability than in the actual limitations themselves.”

They also suggest that older adults may doubt their abilities, when actually, they are capable of looking after a pet. What they need is confidence and support to help them adopt a pet.

Also, they may set their heart on a pet that is more demanding – dogs need to be exercised regularly while cats do not, and guinea pigs and rabbits require even less physical care – but perhaps they could be persuaded to consider other options that are more compatible with their needs and abilities.

More creative solutions from professionals needed

The researchers suggest that health professionals and shelter professionals could work together and encourage pet adoption and even “prescribe” the right pet for the right issue – for example, to address isolation, grief or depression. Animal shelters could also set up and test programs whereby older adults could adopt pets on a trial basis, they note.

In discussing barriers related to cost, the team acknowledges that these are probably the most challenging. They urge all parties involved to come up with creative solutions. For instance, some meals on wheels programs include an option for pet meals. And perhaps, if building policies considered the benefit to older, solitary residents’ mental health of having a pet, they might lower or even waive the pet deposit fee – which the authors note is perhaps the biggest barrier to pet ownership among poorer older people.

They also urge health and care professionals to include the effect of any human-animal bonds in their clients’ lives when carrying out care assessments. If these were taken into account, then their potential benefit to their clients’ health may be seen to be big enough to override some of the no-pet policies that seem to prevail.

While many assisted-living facilities appear to allow pets, nursing homes do not. This can cause considerable distress to an older person moving from one to the other. Perhaps policies cannot bend as far as to allow pets in the nursing homes, but care plans could include a provision to continue the human-animal bond – perhaps by arranging regular visits from or to the family member or friend who has taken on the care of the pet.

The authors conclude:

“Future researchers should continue to explore the human-animal bond for older adult populations, particularly for those with cognitive, physical, and financial limitations. There is so much potential benefit here for both pets and potential pet owners.”

First author Keith Anderson, from the University of Montana in Missoula, says he became interested in doing the study because:

“As a geriatric social work researcher, I’ve always been interested in finding creative, cost-effective ways to improve the lives and well-being of older adults.

As already mentioned, cats may be less demanding, easier and cheaper to care for than dogs, but what many owners may not realize is that cats can get stressed, especially if their routine is disturbed or they have to share the home with another cat.

Study Points To Potential Monitoring Approach For Personalized Treatment Of Spinal Cord Injuries

Researchers have developed a urine test revealing the presence of a neurotoxin that likely worsens the severity and pain of spinal cord injuries, suggesting a new tool to treat the injuries.

The neurotoxin, called acrolein, is produced within the body after nerve cells are damaged, increasing pain and triggering a cascade of biochemical events thought to worsen the injury’s severity. The new test detected the toxin’s presence in dogs that had naturally sustained spinal cord injuries. The injuries were acute, meaning they were suffered within a few weeks of the study when treatment to reduce acrolein might help prevent further damage.

The researchers studied the presence of a chemical compound called 3- hydroxypropyl mercapturic acid (3-HPMA), which is a metabolic product of acrolein.

“This has implications for a potential treatment to hinder further damage and reduce pain in people with spinal cord injuries,” said Riyi Shi (pronounced Ree Shee), a professor of neuroscience and biomedical engineering in Purdue University’s Department of Basic Medical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine and Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering. “Urine 3-HPMA could be used as a biomarker in future clinical trials to non-invasively measure the effect of therapeutic intervention by reducing acrolein after acute spinal cord injury.”

Findings are detailed in a research paper published online in The Veterinary Journal.

The concentration of acrolein can be reduced using the drug hydralazine, which has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for hypertension. The drug has been shown to reduce acrolein and pain following spinal cord injury in laboratory rats and mice.

In the new study, urine was studied from 10 dogs with acute spinal cord injuries, and 10 without injuries as a control. Findings showed the median urine 3-HPMA concentration was significantly higher in dogs with the injuries compared to the control dogs.

“Urine 3-HPMA is the first assay to indirectly assess acrolein concentration by measuring a metabolite of acrolein in dogs,” Shi said.

The median urinary 3-HPMA concentration in the dogs with acute spinal cord injuries was 5.76 micromoles per gram of creatinine, a compound found in urine, compared to 3.10 micromoles of 3-HPMA per gram of creatinine in control dogs.

The paper was co-authored by Shi; veterinarian Andrea Sangster; former Purdue doctoral student Lingxing Zheng; veterinarian R. Timothy Bentley, an associate professor of neurology and neurosurgery in Purdue’s Department of Basic Medical Sciences and Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences; and former Purdue associate professor Rebecca Packer, who is now an associate professor of neurology and neurosurgery at Colorado State University.

While previous research focused on rats and mice, progressing to dogs takes the research a step closer to research with humans. At the same time, because the dogs suffered their injuries naturally and they are much closer to humans in size, they represent a truer comparison to people with spinal cord injuries, Shi said.

Together, these factors increase the likelihood of translating the findings to eventual application to humans, he said.

“It’s important to acknowledge the critical role played by Purdue’s College of Veterinary Medicine,” Shi said. “Because we have an excellent veterinary hospital, we have ready access to facilities and expertise not available to most research institutions.”

Ideally, the monitoring approach might be used in personalized medicine to reduce side effects by precisely tailoring drug dosage to individual patients based on the concentration of acrolein.

The study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, was approved by the Purdue University Animal Care and Use Committee. The research dovetails with the goals of a recently formed Purdue Institute for Integrative Neuroscience, at the university’s Discovery Park. The institute spans 25 departments and includes around 100 faculties engaged in neuroscience-related research.

Future research may include work to treat dogs with spinal cord injuries with hydralazine or other drugs that reduce the concentration of acrolein.

Article: Urinary 3-hydroxypropyl mercapturic acid (3-HPMA) concentrations in dogs with acute spinal cord injury due to intervertebral disc herniation, A.M. Sangster, L. Zheng, R.T. Bentley, R. Shi, R.A. Packer, The Veterinary Journal, doi: 10.1016/j.tvjl.2016.11.016, published online 23 November 2016.

Living With Pets Linked To Stronger Social Skills In Children With Autism

A new study suggests that not only having pet dogs in the home but also living with cats, rabbits and other animals as pets may help children with autism improve their social skills.
girl cuddling cat
New research suggests living with any kind of pet is linked to increased social skills in children with autism.

Previous studies show that pets encourage social interaction, and there have been reports of dogs helping children with autism develop their social skills. But before this new study, from a researcher the University of Missouri (MU), nobody had shown this might also true of other types of pet.

Dr. Gretchen Carlisle, a research fellow in the MU College of Veterinary Medicine’s Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction (ReCHAI), says when pets are present in the home, the classroom, or other social setting, children tend to interact and talk to each other more.

The pets serve as “social lubricants,” she explains, noting that this increase in social interaction when pets around also appear to be true of children with autism. This could account for the increased assertiveness she found in autistic children who had pets living at home.

“Kids with autism don’t always readily engage with others,” says Dr. Carlisle, “but if there’s a pet in the home that the child is bonded with and a visitor starts asking about the pet, the child may be more likely to respond.”

Children with autism more likely to engage social behavior when living with a pet

For the study, Dr. Carlisle surveyed parents of autistic patients attending the MU Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. Altogether, she surveyed 70 families, with patients ranging in age from 8 to 18 years.

Nearly 70% of the families had dogs and around 50% had cats. Smaller proportions also had other pets, including farm animals, reptiles, rodents, rabbits, fish, a bird and even a spider.

Dr. Carlisle compared the survey results with assessments of the children’s social skills and found those who lived with dogs appeared to have greater social skills.

She also found the longer the children had lived with a dog at home, the better their social skills. And it seems the strongest bonds were with smaller dogs.

But the results also showed links between greater social skills and living with any kind of pet – not just dogs, as Dr. Carlisle comments:

“More significantly, however, the data revealed that children with any kind of pet in the home reported being more likely to engage in behaviors such as introducing themselves, asking for information or responding to other people’s questions.”

“These kinds of social skills typically are difficult for kids with autism,” she adds, “but this study showed children’s assertiveness was greater if they lived with a pet.”

We shouldn’t assume dogs are the only pets that help children with autism

The study suggests we shouldn’t assume that dogs are the only home pets that can help children with autism, as Dr. Carlisle explains:

“Kids with autism are highly individual and unique, so some other animals may provide just as much benefit as dogs.”

“Though parents may assume having dogs are best to help their children, my data show greater social skills for children with autism who live in homes with any type of pet,” she adds.

Pets Provide Key Social And Emotional Support

Pet owners appear to fare better than other people with regard to physical fitness, self-esteem, being conscientious, being more socially communicative, not worrying so much about things, and being less fearful in general, researchers revealed in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The authors added that pet owners did not bond to their animals at the expense of relationships with other humans.

It is a myth, the authors revealed, that pet owners rely more on their animals when their human social support is weak.

Psychologist Allen R. McConnell, Ph.D., of Miami University in Ohio and team carried out three studies aimed at evaluating the potential benefits of owning a pet among what they termed as “everyday people”.

McConnell said:

“We observed evidence that pet owners fared better, both in terms of well-being outcomes and individual differences, than non-owners on several dimensions. Specifically, pet owners had greater self-esteem, were more physically fit, tended to be less lonely, were more conscientious, were more extraverted, tended to be less fearful and tended to be less preoccupied than non-owners.”

Before this study, others only looked at the relationship (correlation) between two variables and did not demonstrate whether one was caused by the other.

The first study included 217 participants, 79% of them female with an average age of 31 and a mean annual household income of $77,000. They responded to surveys aimed at determining whether those who owned pets differed from others in their well-being, attachment style, and personality type. Their findings revealed several differences, and in all of them pet owners enjoyed better health, appeared to be better adjusted, and were happier than those who did not have pets.

The second study involved 56 people who had pet dogs – 91% of them were female and their average age was 42 years. The average annual household income was $65,000. The aim was to determine whether the dog owners benefited when their dog was perceived to fulfill their social needs better. Among those whose dogs enhanced their feelings of belonging, self-esteem, and meaningful existence, there was a greater sense of well-being.

The third study involved 97 university students, average age 19 years. They found that after experiencing rejection, pets can make their owners feel better. The participants were asked to describe in writing how they felt when they were excluded. They were also asked to write about their favorite pet, friend, or to draw a map of their university campus. The authors found that writing about a pet had the same beneficial effect as writing about a friend for reducing feelings of rejection.

The authors wrote:

“The present work presents considerable evidence that pets benefit the lives of their owners, both psychologically and physically, by serving as an important source of social support. Whereas past work has focused primarily on pet owners facing significant health challenges ..the present study establishes that there are many positive consequences for everyday people who own pets.”

“Friends With Benefits: On the Positive Consequences of Pet Ownership”
Allen R. McConnell, Ph.D., Miami University; Christina M. Brown, Ph.D., Saint Louis University; Tonya M. Shoda, MA, Laura E. Stayton, BA, and Colleen E. Martin, BA
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 101, No. 6. 10.1037/a0024506