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How Dog Germs Spread

By Kim Boatman


If you share food with your beloved dog, make room in your bed for the happy tail wagger or
allow a face lick or two, you’re not alone.

Many dog owners share in this close-proximity manner with their beloved pups. But are you
placing your health at risk when you do so? A study by a Kansas State University assistant
professor offers insight into how germs are spread between dogs and their owners.

Good News and Bad
Kate Stenske, DVM, Ph.D., found that owners who bond in such ways with their dogs are no
more likely to share the same strains of E. coli bacteria with their pets than dog owners who are
more reserved in their interactions. Just 10 percent of the dog-human pairs shared the same E.
coli strains, says Dr. Stenske, whose findings have been accepted for publication in the American
Journal of Veterinary Research.

However, Dr. Stenske and other experts point out that this study focused on just one type of
bacteria. Dogs can transmit other diseases, such as ringworm, hookworms, roundworms and
campylobacteriosis, an infectious bacterial disease. Aside from keeping your dog in prime
condition with regular veterinary visits, a good diet and exercise, there is one thing that you can
do by yourself to safeguard against both dog- and human-spread diseases: wash your hands. Dr.
Stenske documented an association between antibiotic-resistant E. coli and owners who didn’t
wash their hands after petting their dogs or before cooking.

Proper hand washing tops these best health practices recommended by experts:

Wash your hands Hand washing is the most important thing we can do to minimize the spread
of any bacterial infection. It seems pretty basic, right? However, it’s a matter of remembering to
do so at the right times and in the right manner. Wash your hands after petting sessions with
your pup, as well as before and after handling your dog’s food. Too many of us tend to give a
quick wash of the palms. “My favorite is good ol’ soap and water and a good 10-second scrub,”
Dr. Stenske says. Don’t forget to wash the tops of your hands and your nails, then dry very well.

Avoid face licking Experts still advise against that exuberant, sandpaper-rough face licking dogs
occasionally deliver. “I don’t encourage it in my dog, and I always try to wash my face
afterward,” says Dr. Peter Rabinowitz, MD, MPH, assistant professor of medicine at the Yale
University School of Medicine. Young people, the elderly or the immunocompromised can be
more at risk for obtaining an illness from a face-licking pup.

Young puppies and sick dogs are more likely to acquire germs from you in this manner as well.
For instance, human noses can carry the germs for certain bacterial infections and may pass them
along to our dogs. The young are at risk because their immune systems aren’t fully developed.
The elderly and the ill might have weakened immune systems.

Maintain your dog’s hygiene Give your dog regular baths to help minimize the spread of
germs. Keeping your dog free of ticks and fleas further plays a role in ensuring your pal’s health
and your own.

Maintain your dog’s good health Regular veterinarian visits, updated shots, and deworming
when necessary, are all very important.

Feed smartly Avoid sharing food with your pup and don’t allow it to hunt; feed on garbage; or
eat raw or undercooked meat, milk or eggs. In addition, feed your dog inside. Food fed outdoors
can attract wildlife, increasing your dog’s risk for rabies or other diseases that can be spread by
wild critters.

Scoop the poop safely Cleaning up is one part of dog ownership no one relishes, but being
fastidious about how you clean up your dog’s waste is critical, say the experts. After all, E. coli is
spread through contact with contaminated feces, or by contact with something the
contaminated waste has touched. Use a scooper and gloves, making sure to wash your hands
afterward. Be sure to also clean your dog’s fur if your pal happens to mess his coat a bit.

We don’t live in a sterile world, and you want a loving relationship with your dog. Numerous
other studies report that owning a dog has positive health effects for us, humans, so this one
area of cleanliness concern represents a rare, yet important, exception to the general rule. “We
should not be afraid of our dogs,” says Dr. Stenske. “I’m very close with my dog. You use
common sense. We should be clean ourselves, and we should keep our pets clean, too.”