Pets and the immunocompromised person

Alternative names
Zoonotic infections; AIDS patients and pets; Bone marrow transplant patients and pets; Chemotherapy patients and pets

Immunocompromised people (people infected with HIV, or who have other conditions that suppress the immune system such as chronic renal failure, alcoholism, cirrhosis, diabetes, cancer, leukemia, transplant recipients, splenectomy, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or high doses of steroids) are often advised to give up their pets to avoid contracting various diseases from them. However, a large percent of these people opt to keep their cherished pet. It is very important for such people and their families to be aware of the potential risk for zoonotic infection (diseases that can be passed from animals to humans).

The following guidelines provide recommendations for immunocompromised pet owners:

  • Ask your veterinarian for information on zoonotic infections and the immunocompromised person.  
  • Keep your pet clean and healthy. Make sure that all vaccinations are up-to-date. If you own a cat, have it tested for feline leukemia virus (FeLV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). Although these viruses are not transmitted to humans, they do affect the cat’s immune system, putting you and your cat at risk for other infections that may be transmitted to humans.  
  • All new pets should be examined by a veterinarian. If you are considering adopting a pet, you should get a pet that is more than one year old. Kittens and puppies are more likely to scratch and bite, and are more likely to contract infections.  
  • Keep your pets indoors. If they do go outside, keep them on a leash.  
  • Have all pets surgically spayed or neutered. Neutered animals are less likely to roam and therefore less likely to contract diseases.  
  • If your animal has diarrhea, is coughing and sneezing, has decreased appetite, or has lost weight, you should have the animal examined by a veterinarian.  
  • Feed your pet only commercially prepared food and treats. Animals can contract zoonotic infections from undercooked or raw meat or eggs. Also, do not let your pet drink from the toilet because several zoonotic infections can be contracted this way. Cats can contract infections (such as toxoplasmosis) by eating wild animals.  
  • Wash your hands after handling your pet, especially before you eat, prepare food, or smoke.  
  • Keep your cat’s litter box away from eating areas. Use disposable pan liners so that the entire pan can be cleaned with each litter change. If possible, someone besides you should change the litter pan. If you must change the litter, wear rubber gloves and a disposable face mask (similar precautions should be taken when cleaning a bird’s cage). Also, the litter should be scooped daily to prevent the risk of toxoplasma infection.  
  • Keep your pet’s nails short or declaw the animal to reduce the risk of infection caused by animal scratches. Cats are capable of transmitting B. henselae, the organism responsible for cat scratch disease.  
  • Take measures to prevent flea or tick infestations. Several zoonotic infections are transmitted by fleas and ticks.  
  • Do not adopt wild or exotic animals. These animals are more likely to bite, and they often carry rare, yet serious diseases.  
  • Dogs can transmit “kennel cough” to immunocompromised humans. Try to avoid placing your dog in a boarding kennel or other high risk environments.  
  • Reptiles are carriers of salmonella. If you own a reptile, wear gloves when handling the animal or its feces because salmonella is easily passed from animal to human.  
  • Wear rubber gloves when handling or cleaning fish tanks.

For more information on zoonotic infections, contact your local veterinarian or the Humane Society in your area.

Johns Hopkins patient information

Last revised: December 5, 2012
by David A. Scott, M.D.

Medical Encyclopedia

  A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z | 0-9

All ArmMed Media material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.