Staphylococcus aureus is a bacterium which causes skin infections; if it gets into the bloodstream via a wound, it can be life-threatening. Most S. aureus infections are easily managed with penicillin and related antibiotics, but methicillan-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (aka MRSA) is an antibiotic-resistant strain which can prove fatal to the elderly, newborns, and those with weakened immune systems. Typically MRSAs are contracted from a hospital stay; hospitals are breeding grounds for antibiotic-resistant organisms because the patients are treated with a wide range of antibiotics, prompting pathogens to develop resistance against these drugs.
For decades, the drug-resistant strain of S. aureus was pretty exclusively a concern of humans, and almost always humans in hospitals or other health care settings. In recent years, however, this bacterium - known as MRSA - has become a growing problem for veterinarians. An increasing number of infections are occurring in household pets, barnyard animals and even zoo animals, according to a report in Science Times. Therapy pets are at highest risk of contracting the infection due to their increased exposure to patients and healthcare workers.
Pigs on livestock farms have tested positive for the presence of MRSA, most likely because the farmers routinely give antibiotics to healthy food animals; these practices encourage the growth of these ‘superbugs’. Studies which have found MRSA in pets and zoo animals conclude that the animals may have been infected by human caretakers.
Within the last decade, scientists have become aware of a ‘community-associated’ strain of the pathogen which is found outside of the hospital venue (molecular typing of the isolates differentiates between the two). In a study published in The American Journal of Infection Control, Elizabeth A. Scott and her colleagues at Simmons College in Boston swabbed household surfaces such as kitchen and bathtub drains, faucet handles, toilets, high chairs, trash cans and kitchen sponges at 35 random addresses to determine what germs were present (when the guys from Mythbusters did this, the most germ-laden object of all was the kitchen sponge – yuck). MRSA was found in nearly half of the homes sampled. The one variable that overwhelmingly predicted the presence of the germ was the presence of a cat. Cat owners were eight times more likely than others to have MRSA at home, although Dr. Scott states 'There are a number of papers coming out now showing that pets pick up MRSA from us,” Dr. Scott said, “and that they shed it back into the environment again.” Veterinarian Dr. Arnold Plotnick reiterates that it is just as likely that these cats were infected by their owners, rather than vice versa
One example of sharing MRSA is the case of a diabetic man with recurrent MRSA skin infections that were eventually traced to his Dalmatian who carried the bacteria but was not ill. “He would sleep with the couple in the bed and lick them in the face,” said Dr. Farrin A. Manian, chief of infectious diseases at St. John’s Mercy Medical Center in St. Louis. Dr. Manian believes the dog was infected by its owner, but then served as a reservoir for the bacteria, reinfecting the owner. “Only after we treated all three members of the family were we able to get rid of the infections,” Dr. Manian said.
J. Scott Weese, a veterinary internist and microbiologist at the University of Guelph in Ontario, believes MRSA infections transmitted between people and pets are relatively rare. Dr Weese tested randomly selected dogs and found that at any given time only 2 to 3 percent carry MRSA on their fur or skin or in their saliva (for perspective, 1.5% of humans have MRSA inside their noses at any given time). Even if a pet becomes colonized (the bacteria take up residence, reproduce and form a little colony), veterinarians say most healthy animals should be rid of it in a matter of weeks.
There was also the case of the 15-year-old girl and her calico cat; both developed MRSA infections. DNA fingerprinting confirmed that the bacteria in wounds on the girl’s arm and near the cat’s tail were the same.
How to protect yourself and your pets? For starters, be attentive to your pet’s health. If your pet has a wound, it needs to be evaluated and treated. If your pet has a wound, wear gloves when you tend to it. If YOU have a wound, keep it bandaged.
Don’t let your pets run the neighborhood unsupervised. Wash your hands or use a sanitizing gel before and after playing with your pet. Do not let your pet lick you in or around your face. Don’t place pet food and water bowls down on the same counter upon which you prepare food. Common sense and good sanitary practices will go a very long way towards keeping yourself and your pets safe and healthy.
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