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How Dirty Are Dogs and Cats?

There are paw prints where dogs live. Wherever cats live, there is hair. Sure: pets make dirt. But are our four-legged friends a hygiene risk? A microbiologist investigated this question.

“There are a number of infectious diseases that you have to be careful about with pets,” says Professor Dirk Bockmühl from the Rhein-Waal University of Applied Sciences. For the “RTL” format “Stern TV”, he and his team examined whether pets and hygiene are mutually exclusive.

To do this, Bockmühle’s team measured the germ load in households with pets. For example on surfaces or objects with which the animals come into frequent contact. In addition, for an experiment, pet owners wore sterile rubber gloves while interacting with their animals. In the laboratory, it was finally evaluated how many germs, fungi, and intestinal bacteria were then on the gloves.

Pets and Hygiene: Cats Do the Best

The result: the scientists found the highest number of fungi on the gloves of a corn snake owner with 2,370 skin fungal pathogens per square centimeter of gloves. There were also a relatively large number of fungi on the gloves of dog and horse owners: 830 and 790 per square centimeter, respectively. Cats, on the other hand, provided inconspicuous laboratory values.

But are these skin fungi dangerous for us humans? Normally, microorganisms need “gateways” into an organism, for example, wounds or the mouth. It is different from skin fungi. Bockmühl: “The skin fungi are pretty much the only microorganisms that can actually infect healthy skin.” The microbiologist, therefore, advises caution.

But the researchers not only detected skin fungus on the gloves, but also intestinal bacteria that can cause diarrhea and vomiting under certain circumstances.

Are Pets a Hygiene Hazard?

“In individual cases – one can again emphasize the chickens or the birds in general – we found Enterobactereacen, which is possibly fecal contamination,” says Bockmühl. The same applies here: be careful! Because, according to the professor: “If I come into contact with animal feces or with surfaces contaminated by feces, then I can possibly ingest the pathogens and become ill with them.”

But are pets really a hygiene hazard now? “If you get a pet, you have to be aware that you are buying yourself a risk,” said Andreas Sing, a specialist in microbiology and infection epidemiology at the Bavarian State Office for Health and Food Safety, “DPA”.

Scientists led by Jason Stull from Ohio State University conducted a study with the team in 2015. “In non-pregnant people with healthy immune systems between the ages of 5 and 64, the risk of pet-related disease is low,” they write. For people who do not belong to this group, for example, small children, a pet could pose a health risk.

That is why the researchers recommend washing your hands regularly when dealing with pets, wearing gloves when emptying litter boxes or cleaning aquariums, and having animals regularly examined by the vet.

Mary Allen

Written by Mary Allen

Hello, I'm Mary! I've cared for many pet species including dogs, cats, guinea pigs, fish, and bearded dragons. I also have ten pets of my own currently. I've written many topics in this space including how-tos, informational articles, care guides, breed guides, and more.

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