Pet Docs

A common bacteria in the mouths of dogs and cats can be transmitted to humans through licks, bites or even close proximity. File/Kankanit Wiriysajja/AP

My (Henri Bianucci) wife can be somewhat of a hypochondriac. When she hears about someone afflicted with a dramatic, and usually extremely rare, medical condition, her demeanor changes in a subtle but definite way. She knows that this medical condition has now taken up residence in her mind, and will forever cast a shadow over formerly carefree pursuits.

The brain-eating amoeba put an end to swimming in fresh water lakes and rivers forever. Reports of flesh-eating bacteria infections picked up at the beach from minor cuts and scrapes has permanently dampened the joy of a barefoot walk on the seashore.

Nightmarish stories about the prevalence of bedbug infestations has now cast a pall over hotel or short-term rental stays. The simple joys in life, gradually chipped away with each new outbreak

Although I am more relaxed about these types of things, it’s not like I don’t think they pose a risk. Obviously they do. Real people have been affected by all of these things. But I try to think about them in terms of their relative risk.

Pet Docs 8-19-18

Perry Jameson (left) and Henri Bianucci. File/Staff

The odds of any one person being affected by any of these things is extremely low. There are far greater threats to our health, such as driving, yet we do it every day and hardly give it a thought. The third leading cause of death in America is accidents, and auto accidents are a huge part of that number.

Yet most people are willing to make it even riskier, so they throw in some texting. In 2018, in all of the world, around 500 people died in passenger aviation accidents, and this represented a big jump in numbers. That’s fewer than those killed in automobiles in the first half of this year in South Carolina alone.

We are terrified of and fascinated by sharks, but you are five times more likely to be killed by a cow. The mosquito is the deadliest creature on the planet, responsible for the deaths of more than 700,000 people each year, yet the Discovery Channel does not have a mosquito or cow week. We are less intimidated by the likelihood of death or illness than we are the manner of it. My wife is no different.

When she sent me the text in August, my initial reaction was to laugh. Not at the subject, but the fact that this one struck right to the center of our lives. It was totally unavoidable for either of us, unless we made a major change in our home life. This threat was truly from within. Living with this threat would force her to factor in relative risk, or find new homes for all seven of our dogs.

The article described a case of a woman who was simply licked by her dog, over a cut on her skin. Within hours, she was hospitalized and awoke from a coma 10 days later to find that her arms and legs had been amputated.

My first impulse was to dismiss it as a fluke, but the article described two more, very similar, cases that occurred this year. It really does not get much worse than that, and it happened to a healthy woman from something that happens in our house multiple times per day.

The culprit is a bacteria known as Capnocytophaga canimorsus, which is a common part of the oral bacterial flora of dogs and cats, which means most of them have it. It gets worse. This can be transmitted by licks, bites or even close proximity to pets. Terrifying, right? If you focus on the severe cases, absolutely. But if you consider the relative risk, not really.

First you have to ask yourself why, in a country with almost 200 million owned dogs and cats, can we only find a handful of cases per year? The answer lies in the fact that these bacteria are opportunistic, meaning normal, healthy people generally don't get infected despite being exposed.

The people at risk are those with severely compromised immune systems, as with some cancer and HIV patients, people who have had their spleens removed, heavy drinkers, and people taking immunosuppressive drugs, to name a few.

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That said, some healthy people can also become infected, and the infections range from mild and localized to the area of exposure to severe, generalized infection. In those cases, the death rate is around 30 percent, and survival can include debilitating injury to limbs and vital organs.

Symptoms range from localized redness and blisters around a bite to more generalized symptoms, such as diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pain, headache and fever. Severe sepsis can develop, leading to multiple organ failure, gangrene, heart attack and death.

Prevention need not include panic. It is important to know whether you are in a high-risk category and to take reasonable precautions, such as not allowing your dog or cat to lick you.

Even if you are not at risk, you should avoid direct contact of dog or cat saliva with an open cut or ulcerated skin. If you are bitten, immediately wash out the wound with soap and water and contact a physician, as these bites also pose a risk for rabies.

Most infections with Capnocytophaga are easily treated with antibiotics, unless they progress to a generalized condition. If you are showing any signs anywhere from one to 14 days after a bite, seek medical attention immediately.

The takeaway is that most of us have nothing to worry about with this germ. But it is another reason to take bites seriously. Know your own risk factors, and those of anyone in contact with your pets. Then take reasonable precautions to avoid exposure and act accordingly should an infection occur.

Dr. Henri Bianucci and Dr. Perry Jameson are with Veterinary Specialty Care LLC. Send questions to petdocs@postandcourier.com.