SIRC – Media Watch 22-10-99
An article in the Independent entitled This kitten could seriously damage your health discussed some of the paradoxes of pet owning. A general consensus of opinion exists that people who keep pets are less likely to suffer from depression, stress and high blood pressure but countering the positives the piece cites a number of diseases that it associates with the introduction of certain animals into our immediate environment. It rightly points out that one of the most "feared animal-borne disease is probably also one of the most overstated. The toxoplasmosis parasite may be found in the faeces of cats, and can cause miscarriages and birth defects if it infects pregnant women. But most cat-owners will probably already be immune, and the illness is in fact much more readily caught from under-cooked lamb." As we have witnessed on numerous occasions basic truths are often successfully distorted when minimal risks are alleged to threaten the safety of mother and child. Cats are also far from a rare sight in the domestic setting. Scaremongering is always at its most poignant when it seeks to protect and 'act in the best interests' of large populations. However, the cuddly fur-covered domestic favourite may not after all be the root of all evil. "Probably the most dangerous pet is also the slowest. Some 38 per cent of tortoises imported into in Britain contain salmonellosis and the anus of the tortoise is Shangri-La to the enthusiastic pathologist."
The outbreak of illness, originally thought to be St Louis encephalitis in New York last month, has now been attributed to West Nile fever, an illness spread to humans from birds via mosquitoes. The story lists a veritable shopping list of diseases that may be associated with animal contact – zoonoses – and suggests that "global warming, our increased taste for foreign travel and fads for exotic pets" may actually expose us to new strains previously unknown to the 'western world'. The writer, a research fellow in infectious diseases at the Centre for Infectious Diseases, suggests by way of conclusion that we should ingest this information with a degree of balance. "However, before you rush off to load your shotgun and line your pet up against a barn door, it is worth putting the issue into perspective with the words of Richard Rowe: "There is only one animal whose bite is dirtier and more likely to get infected than that of a cat. And that is the human." In the unlikely event that you do happen to come into perilous contact with your neighbour's 'gnashers' we would advise that you seek immediate medical attention.