In Sickness and in Health

When the going gets tough, there’s no need to bid farewell to your pets.

By Katie Marsico

Anyone who’s ever been a pet guardian cannot help but be aware of how deeply companion animals affect our lives. They depend on us for sustenance and affection and, in turn, provide tremendous love and devotion. But what about the impact pets have on people’s physical and emotional well-being? Can animals improve our health, and are there instances when they pose a risk to it?

The cat and the cradle

The prospect of a new baby is a source of joy to most families, but it can also be an unnecessary cause for alarm to pregnant women, forcing them to make tough and frequently painful decisions about giving up a cherished pet. The issue in question is toxoplasmosis, a parasitic infection that can be carried in cat feces and can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, or severe fetal defects. However, Nancy Peterson, issues specialist of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), emphasizes that cats aren’t the only culprit. Toxoplasmosis can also be transmitted via consumption of undercooked meat and raw, unwashed vegetables.

“The bottom line is that pregnant women do not have to give up their cats,” Peterson says. “Rather, they simply should avoid cleaning the litter box. If they must do so, they should wear disposable gloves and change the litter box daily.” To be on the safe side, Noble Jackson, DVM, MS, of the College of Microbiology and Veterinary Science at the University of Arizona in Tucson, also encourages expecting families to consider postponing bringing any new animals into the home. Additionally, he recommends keeping pre-existing cats inside the house.

“Most cats become infected by ingesting raw meat, poultry, or fish. Outdoor cats often forage for these items in trash bins or might become exposed after eating hunted prey animals.” That said, Jackson concurs with Peterson that a visit from the stork should not be a call to arms to abandon family pets.

“Would I get rid of my cat if my wife was pregnant?” Jackson ponders. “The answer is no. Can women in homes without cats contract toxoplasmosis? Most definitely. So, simply be sure to take the necessary precautions if you [have] a cat, and even if you don’t, always practice good hygiene, and cook all meats well.”

Do allergies mean avoidance of pets?

For someone who has the displeasure of being well-acquainted with allergies, the thought of bringing an animal home might set off warning bells. No one wants to experience the physical discomfort of an allergic reaction, combined with the emotional turmoil of possibly having to give up a pet after becoming attached. But is it a hard and fast rule that allergy sufferers have to avoid cats and dogs?

“Not necessarily,” says Shane Bateman, DVM, associate professor of clinical sciences at Ohio State Veterinary Hospital in Columbus. “Don’t forget about hypoallergenic dog breeds, such as the Poodle, Mexican Hairless, and Chinese Crested. For cats, there are the Sphinx and Rex varieties. If folks find out that they are allergic after they adopt a pet, they should talk to their veterinarian and family physician to determine what lifestyle changes may be helpful to assist them in managing their allergy.” Such changes might include keeping pets out of sleeping areas and vacuuming regularly.

“The bottom line is that pregnant women do not have to give up their cats.”–Nancy Peterson, HSUS

If these strategies fail, Paula Rode, DVM, still insists that pet guardians should remain optimistic.

“I often defer to allergists to give advice on this issue,” explains Rode, who is second vice president of the Michigan Veterinary Medical Association in Chelsea. “Though there is a lot of individual variation when it comes to allergies, it seems that many of my clients will develop a tolerance to their pets over time. In the meantime, certain anecdotal evidence suggests some of the over-the-counter anti-allergy sprays can be helpful.”

On the heels of a major illness

What happens when there’s more to consider than sneezing and wheezing? For the patient who is recovering from a critical surgery or a debilitating physical trauma such as a heart attack, popular and practical thought is to keep life as stress-free as possible. This begs the question of where pets, which undeniably entail a fair share of work and responsibility, fit into the equation.

“People recuperating from a major illness need to realize they have alternatives to giving up a pet,” Rode says. “There is a tremendous amount of research showing how very helpful animals can be when guardians are in recovery. In a situation like this, I always recommend that clients have conversations with friends and family members if additional assistance is needed.” Rode contends that, in general, most people are willing to help out, especially if they can refer to their own past experiences with pets and thereby comprehend how valuable a companion animal may be to the patient. Other options for coping with the day-to-day activities related to pet guardianship may include hiring a dog walker or even a pet-sitter in the short term. And as opposed to perceiving pets as a post-illness burden, experts such as Jackson support Rode in her assertion that they can be an enormous source of positive healing.

“Animals can play a pivotal role in helping recovering patients regain independence more quickly,” Jackson says. “Simply walking a dog is great exercise in cardiac and orthopedic patients, and studies have shown that lung-transplant recipients with pets have less complaints of pain and feelings of better quality of life. Nursing-home residents experience less depression, improved blood-pressure values, and comfort in memories of pets they may have previously cared for.”

Pets as a support system

Just as some individuals cope with physical disabilities and hardships, almost everyone experiences a rough patch in life where the urge arises to fall back on a companion for comfort. Divorce, death, or job loss are just a sampling of incidents that might cause someone to adopt a pet in the hopes of obtaining unconditional affection. However, Peterson urges prospective guardians to think twice before making such a decision. “I wouldn’t advise anyone to rush out and get a pet during emotionally difficult times. All the things you would normally consider before adopting an animal still need to be considered. Plus, this may not be the most stable period in your life. Adopting a pet should be a very thoughtful decision that takes into account the welfare of an animal you’ll hopefully have for many years to come.”

Rode agrees and also cautions against well-meaning friends and relatives surprising their loved ones with a new pet in the hopes of raising her spirits. “It is important to recognize that pet guardianship is not for everyone, and people should make their own decisions about bringing an animal into their home. Pets are a huge responsibility and someone with a new job, new schedule, or perhaps new freedom from a negative relationship may not feel ready for the commitment.”

On the other hand, Rode also notes that pre-existing pets can be an incredibly positive influence for guardians who are dealing with stress. “Though our negative emotions have the potential to impact negatively on our pets, animals are generally quite ready to wait patiently for our moods to improve and are happy to try to lift our spirits. Pets help us to feel loved, needed, and unconditionally accepted. It is pretty difficult to get that without strings attached in any other kind of relationship.”

Like Rode, most experts concur that it’s important to examine both the benefits and potential complications of life with a companion animal in a world where people grow, change, get sick, recover, and face various challenges and dilemmas. But while the relationship between a guardian and his or her pet sometimes necessitates certain health precautions and the use of common sense, it’s clear that the rewards make a little extra effort and care extremely worthwhile.

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