courtesy JoNel Aleccia MSNBC Health Writer
When MRSA won't wane, check the family pet
Drug-resistant staph could be swapped between
animals and owners
As if all the angst about drug-resistant staph bacteria wasn’t
worrisome enough, now it turns out you might get the deadly
germ from your cat.
Suspicions about that calico on the couch
are being raised this week in the New England Journal of Medicine.
German scientists reported that a woman endured a series of
nasty abscesses caused by methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus
aureus, known as MRSA, until a veterinarian screened —
and treated — the family cat.
It’s not an isolated case, or critter,
according to researchers in the U.S. and Canada who are studying
the connection between pets, people and this dangerous, drug-resistant
bug linked to more than 94,000 infections and nearly 19,000
deaths in the U.S. in 2005.
“We’ve found MRSA in dogs,
cats, rabbits, pigs — even marine mammals,” said
J. Scott Weese, an associate professor of pathobiology at
the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. Horses and cows
also are routinely affected.
Owners should be aware, but not worried,
about the possibility of getting MRSA from their pets, said
Weese, who is part of a team led by researchers at the University
of Missouri, Columbia, studying the prevalence of MRSA in
humans and companion animals.
“The big thing we need to get the
mindset around is that we’re not a population of dogs,
cats and people, we’re a population of animals,”
The question perplexing scientists is whether
people and pets swap the MRSA germs back and forth, creating
a loop of infection and reinfection that could endanger humans
and animals alike.
People and pets carry MRSA germs
So far, it’s clear that humans and pets can be colonized
with the MRSA bacteria, said John R. Middleton, an associate
professor of food animal medicine and surgery at the University
of Missouri. That doesn’t mean they’ve got active
infections, just that they’re carriers of the germs
that are resistant to most frontline antibiotics.
An ongoing study of some 600 people-pet
households across the U.S. showed that staph aureus germs
were present in nearly 28 percent of people and about 13 percent
of pets. About 10 percent of households had both a human and
an animal colonized.
MRSA, the drug-resistant strain, was detected
in more than 5 percent of humans and about 3 percent of dogs
and cats, Middleton said.
What’s not so clear is whether people
got MRSA from their pets — or whether they gave it to
them, researchers said. One theory is that pets may pick up
the bacteria from people, but then serve as reservoirs, harboring
the bugs so they can reinfect humans.
“Pets could be innocent bystanders,
or they could be significant sources of infection,”
Weese said. “They’re probably somewhere in between.”
For many people and their pets, the MRSA
cycle is not serious. Most MRSA infections are minor skin
lesions that are cured quickly with proper hygiene and secure
bandages. The bacteria become dangerous when they travel inside
the body, where they can lead to bloodstream or surgical site
infections or life-threatening pneumonia.
If infections don't heal, test pets
In homes where people are suffering serial MRSA infections
or from surgical wounds that just don’t heal, it’s
a good idea to consider the non-human family members, scientists
“They’ll go ahead and treat
all the humans, but they haven’t treated the pets,”
Most vets should be able to conduct the
simple swab tests to determine whether a pet is colonized
with MRSA, he added.
If the test comes back positive, don't
panic, said Lori Spagnoli, 59, of New Jersey. Her oldest cat,
Momo, has had a lingering MRSA infection since 2005. Spagnoli's
husband, Joe, tested positive for MRSA colonization once,
but not again. Spagnoli attributes her family's MRSA-free
status to scrupulous sanitation and supplements that boost
the immune systems of people and cats alike.
She never considered giving away 15-year-old
Momo, or the cat's offspring, Fluffy and Dotti, both 14. Instead
she sought advice from the United Kingdom-based Bella
Moss Foundation, which helps people whose pets have
"I view it as any other bacteria that
a family member having it could enter the home," she
said. "You're on notice that it might be an issue."
People typically are dosed with stronger-than-normal
antibiotics to kick intractable MRSA infections. That’s
possible in pets, too, but it appears that animals will shed
the bacteria on their own, Weese said, given enough time,
good hygiene and no reinfection by a human source.
A good thing, too. One effective cure for
animals is a dose of antibiotic nasal cream, which is applied
more easily in some species than others, said Middleton.
“You can imagine trying to treat
a cat,” he said.
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