By Dr. Kerry Pride
Veterinarian and Epidemiologist
Wyoming Department of Health
Your young child wakes up in the middle of the night with vomiting, stomach cramps and bloody diarrhea. Because the illness seems to be getting worse, you rush your child to the hospital. Your child is admitted and they spend the next few days in intensive care on intravenous fluids. The doctor talks with you about your child’s kidney function, warning you that your child is very ill and is not out of the woods yet.
This kind of scenario is a nightmare for every parent.
One way to help prevent such a nightmare from becoming a reality starts by understanding what bacteria our families may be exposed to by our own pets and livestock.
Because I grew up in a ranching family in rural Montana and have practiced as a mixed-animal veterinarian, I understand the importance of raising livestock. I appreciate the rewarding experiences livestock can bring to our families, and I realize that knowledge is power when it comes to preventing animal-associated illness in our families.
In Wyoming, common animal-associated bacteria that can cause human illness include E. coli, Campylobacter and Salmonella. These bacteria are found worldwide and are common causes of illness. Each can lead to life-threatening complications in children, older adults and anyone with immune system concerns.
These bacteria are typically transmitted to humans when tiny, usually invisible amounts of animal feces are ingested. This can occur when we handle animals and then do not wash our hands before we eat or touch our face. The problem is especially common in young children who put their fingers and toys/objects in their mouths. These bacteria can also be spread by contaminated water, food or surfaces. The most common symptom in people is diarrhea, which is frequently bloody. In severe cases, kidney failure can occur.
E. coli are normally found in the intestinal tract of animals, but there is a group of E. coli with the ability to produce toxins. One type is E. coli O157. The toxins produced by these types of E. coli are what cause illness in people. Cattle and sheep are the major sources of toxin-producing E. coli, but other animals can carry the bacteria. E. coli can also be acquired from contaminated food and water sources. Adult cattle and sheep can carry the bacteria, but usually have no signs of illness. In Wyoming, an average of 16 human cases per year are reported to the Wyoming Department of Health (WDH). More than 50 percent of reported cases occur in children 14 years of age and under and 30 percent require hospitalization.
Cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, turkeys, ducks, horses, rodents, dogs, cats and pigs can all be sources of Campylobacter for people. Many different types of Campylobacter are associated with animals and have the potential to cause human illness. Campylobacter in animals usually causes no signs of illness, but can be associated with miscarraiages and diarrhea. In Wyoming, there is an average of 60 cases per year reported to WDH. More than 25 percent of reported cases occur in children 14 years of age and under and 20 percent of all cases require hospitalization.
Salmonella species have been found in all of our common livestock and domestic animals. Most animals carry this organism with no signs of illness, but some can show clinical signs, which includes diarrhea, during times of stress. In Wyoming, there is an average of 74 cases per year reported to WDH. More than 30 percent of all reported cases occur in children 14 years of age and under and 20 percent require hospitalization.
There is good news. Simple precautions go a long way toward preventing these bacterial illnesses in our families.
The best defense we have against infection with one of these bacteria is good hygiene. Hand washing after contact with animals and their environments is the best prevention tool. Children need to understand at as early an age as possible the importance of hand washing and the importance of keeping their fingers and toys/objects out of their mouths. Children shouldn’t be allowed to feed or play with any sick animal. Placing alcohol-based hand sanitizers throughout the barn is a good alternative if no running water is available. However, remember to also wash hands thoroughly with soap and warm water as soon as possible.
When livestock are worked, make sure good hand washing practices are used and food is not served near the corrals. During calving, lambing, kidding or foaling make sure gloves are worn and hand washing occurs between and after handling each animal. Any aborted fetuses have the potential to be infectious, so handle with gloves and dispose properly.
When dealing with a sick animal, wear gloves and wash hands immediately after done caring for the animal. Also, handle the sick animal after taking care of other animals to avoid spreading the infection. If there are multiple sick animals or if any animal is severely ill, call your local veterinarian so a diagnosis can be made.
I have no doubt the benefits of pet and livestock ownership outweigh the risks of animal-associated illness. Diligent hand washing and hygiene practices will go far to prevent a nightmare scenario in your family.