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Owners may pass superbug to pets

Published: Thursday, March 23 2006 12:03 a.m. MST

ATLANTA — People can get plenty of diseases from animals — bird flu, for one.

Now there are signs dogs and cats can catch a dangerous superbug from people.

At a large Philadelphia veterinary hospital, scientists report that over a three-year period, 38 dogs, cats and other pets caught a drug-resistant staph infection.

They think six of the animals caught the bug from hospital workers. But it's likely that at least some of the other cases were spread to pets by their owners, said Shelley Rankin, chief of clinical microbiology at Penn's School of Veterinary Medicine.

"I don't think it's necessarily that you come home and pat Fluffy on the head and then Fluffy gets sick," said Rankin, who presented the data this week at a medical conference in Atlanta.

But given that an estimated 1 in every 100 people carry such

bacteria in their noses, it could be transmitted by closer contact, she added.

"We pick them up, kiss them on the face. We let them lick us," she said. "Then they lick their skin."

The animals were infected with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, a bacterial infection that is typically hard to treat, although all the pets recovered.

They included 26 dogs, eight cats, three parrots and one rabbit. The dogs developed skin and ear infections. The cats got urinary tract infections; the parrots, skin infections; the rabbit, an ear infection. In people, the germ often appears as a nasty skin infection but can also cause other symptoms.

Researchers don't know if the bacteria spreads from animal to animal, although dogs don't naturally harbor it.

The animals may have caught the bug at other vet clinics before they arrived at Penn's Ryan Veterinary Hospital or they may have caught it from their owners, Penn researchers said.

Last year, Penn's veterinary and human medical schools began a study of the health of pets and their owners. Researchers initially are looking at 25 owner-animal pairs but want to expand that number.

For more than a decade, medical journals have carried occasional reports of human-to-animal transmission of such infections. Journals also have reported animal-to-human transmission.

Georgia Veterinary Specialists — a large animal hospital in the Atlanta suburb of Sandy Springs — saw only two methicillin-resistant staph infections in the thousands of animals it cared for in the past year.

Looking for such infections in animals and their owners is a new endeavor, said Mark Dorfman, a veterinarian and owner of the hospital. "It's still very much in its infancy," he said.

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