By taking simple precautions and following basic rules of hygiene, animal owners can reduce the risk of contracting diseases that can be transmitted by pets, according to a pediatrician at New York University Medical Center.

"The key factors are maintaining the pet's health and preventing animal-to-human infection," said Dr. Keith M. Krasinski, associate professor of clinical pediatrics.An article in an upcoming issue of the center's Health Letter says many of the diseases humans can contract from pets may be prevented by washing one's hands after pet contact, keeping litter areas clean, immunizing the pet and seeking prompt veterinary treatment when the pet is ill.

"The possibility of contracting diseases from a pet should be considered seriously but calmly," Krasinski noted. "Most are mild and occur rarely. Given the more than 75 million pet dogs and cats in the United States and the more than 150 diseases pets can transmit, the incidence of pet-transmitted disease is very low."

However, Krasinski stressed pet owners should be aware some pet-related illnesses, such as toxocariasis, toxoplasmosis, rabies, leptospirosis, tularemia, Lyme disease and plague, may be severe or life-threatening to humans. Untreated, these diseases can lead to meningitis, encephalitis, paralysis, arthritis or pneumonia.

"To help in diagnosis, pet owners should mention their pets to their physicians during an examination," the pediatrician observed.

Pet-associated illnesses are caused by parasites, bacteria, fungi and viruses. They are usually transmitted to humans by direct contact, such as petting or an animal scratch or bite, or by fecal-oral transmission, in which a person's hands come into contact with an animal's contaminated feces and then come in contact with the mouth. Some diseases, including psittacosis (parrot fever), are transmitted by the respiratory route, or through insect bites.

Any animal, domestic or wild, poses some risk of transmitting infection. Krasinski advised avoiding contact with strange animals because of their unpredictable behavior and unknown health status. "The people at highest risk for infectious diseases - the very young, the very old, those with impaired immunity - should avoid any contact with potentially sick animals," he maintained.

Pregnant women are at risk for contracting toxoplasmosis, which can cause serious fetal damage. "To avoid infection, a pregnant woman with a cat should have another person empty the litter box," he stated.

Krasinski emphasized the importance of hand washing for adults and children, both after contact with a pet and after working or playing where pets have been, such as yards and parks.

All litter boxes, cages, and pens should be kept scrupulously clean by removing feces immediately, wrapping them well or placing them in closed containers and disinfecting the area.

People in flea- and tick-infested areas should regularly check their pets for these pests, which can transmit Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Ticks should be removed with rubber gloves or tweezers. Flea bombs, collars and dips provide some pet protection.