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updated: 9/24/2012 6:53 AM

Take sensible precautions as a pet owner

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Q. My children want a pet, but I'm worried a pet could make my kids sick. Should I bring a pet into the home?

A. Pets can make us sick, but that's a reason to take precautions -- not a reason to avoid having pets. Pets make wonderful playmates, keep kids physically active and teach responsibility.

It is true that animals carry germs that can be spread to children -- and adults. Infants and children less than 5 years old are particularly vulnerable.

Some germs that spread from animals to humans:

Streptococcus: These bacteria cause strep throat and skin infections. They are usually passed from one person to another. However, sometimes the family dog is the culprit. When the dog gets a throat culture and treatment, the family stops getting strep throats.

Lyme Disease: The ticks that carry Lyme disease bacteria can live on the family pet, get carried into the home by the pet and jump onto you.

Salmonella, Campylobacter And e. Coli: These bacteria can spread through anything contaminated with an infected pet's stool. You can catch salmonella by touching a seemingly healthy reptile or amphibian. Infection can cause diarrhea, abdominal pain and fever. Rarely, infections can be life-threatening.

Giardia and Cryptosporidium: These germs can cause diarrhea. They spread through contact with infected animal stool.

Toxoplasma: This germ is found in cat stool. In infants, it can damage the brain and eyes. An infected pregnant woman can pass the infection to her unborn child, leading to severe mental and physical problems. The disease can spread through handling a cat's litter box or anything contaminated with cat stool.

Worms: These tiny worms can spread through contact with infected stool. They can cause fever, rash, allergic reactions, eye, liver and lung disease, and brain infections.

Chlamydia Psittaci: This bacteria causes pneumonia. People can become infected by breathing in dust from infected bird droppings.

Rabies: The rabies virus can be fatal. Rabies is usually found in wild animals, but it can also infect your pet. It spreads to people through bites or scratches.

To prevent getting an illness from your pet:

• Take new pets to a veterinarian very soon after adoption or purchase.

• Take your pet to the vet for regular checkups, shots and treatment for worms.

• Always wash your hands thoroughly after cleaning your pet's stool.

• Clean litter boxes every day unless you're pregnant. If you're pregnant, have someone clean them.

• Do not let children play where dogs and cats go to the bathroom.

• Do not let your pet eat raw food or drink from the toilet.

• Keep infants and young children away from puppies and kittens less than 6 months old, reptiles, baby chicks and ducklings, or any pets with diarrhea.

Having said all this, I have never personally seen a person who clearly caught an infection from a family pet. I grew up with dogs as pets, and they never made me sick. And if my parents had taken them away to protect my health, I would have been one unhappy kid.

• Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. Go to his website to send questions and get additional information: AskDoctorK.com

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