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Pet bites and MRSA: A cause for some concern

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In recent years, there has been increasing concern in the medical community over the threat of a bacterial infection with the ominous sounding name of Methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus, better known as MRSA. This concern has recently been heightened by a study reporting that MRSA can be transmitted by pet bites. (A recent article in the New York Times has drawn renewed attention to this issue.)

 An old problem?

Staphylococcus aureus --“Staph”-- is a common bacteria that can cause infection in humans. According to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most Staph infections are minor and easily treated. However, in some cases, the germ may infect the bloodstream, surgical sites, and cause pneumonia. (Information from the CDC on Staph infections is available here. A CDC podcast on MRSA is available here.)

Staph has been around for a long time. More recently, however, a type of Staph has emerged that is highly resistant to most antibiotics, including methicillin. Hence, the name: MRSA. Although MRSA can be treated through the use of other antibiotics, these may have serious side-effects and may not be safe for young children and pregnant women.

The initial symptoms of MRSA infection are the same as those of the non-resistant variety of Staph. Typically, Staph infections appear as red, swollen, or painful skin lesions that look like pimples or boils. They may be warm to the touch or pus-filled. Sometimes, the infection is accompanied by a fever.

The CDC cites a number of factors that increase the risk of developing a Staph infection:

  • skin-to-skin contact with someone with a Staph infection
  • contact with surfaces that have Staph on them
  • cuts or scrapes on the skin
  • crowded living conditions
  • poor hygiene

. . . A new twist

A recent study reported in the British medical journal, The Lancet Infectious Diseases, has found that MRSA infections from pet bites are on the increase. Ironically, this increase is probably due to “cycling” of the germ between humans and pets. The study reports: “MRSA-associated infections in pets are typically acquired from their owners and can potentially cycle between pets and their human acquaintances.” This carries the potential for dogs and cats to become “reservoirs of infection.”

Even if a dog or cat bite comes from an uninfected animal, MRSA already on the person’s skin may be introduced into the body and cause infection. (Interestingly, the Lancet study reports that although cat bites are less destructive than dog bites -- because cats’ jaws are not as strong -- “cats’ narrow sharp teeth inflict deeper puncture wounds than dogs, and tend to carry a higher risk of infection and soft-tissue abscess.”)

According to the CDC, about 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs each year. Almost one in five of those who are bitten require medical attention for their injuries. A report by the “Task Force on Canine Aggression and Human-Canine Interactions” of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) estimates that hospital expenses nationwide for dog bite-related emergency visits total $102.4 million annually.

Perhaps of most concern is the fact that 42 percent of dog bites occurred among children ages 14 or younger, with the injury rate highest for those ages five to nine. A study of more than 3,000 school children in Pennsylvania showed that 45 percent had been bitten by a dog at least once in their lifetimes, and of those, 30 percent were bitten by their own dogs.

(Click here for WebVet’s suggestions on keeping kids safe from dog bites, and here for a brochure from the AVMA on dog bite prevention.)

Concern and caution, not panic

Pet bite prevention -- and proper treatment when a bite does occur -- should be the concern of every dog and cat owner. As with any injury where the skin is broken, pet bites present a risk of serious infection -- and not just from MRSA – and should be treated appropriately.

The increasing incidence of MRSA in the human population translates to an increased risk of pet-to-human transmission. However, the Lancet article cites a study showing that only one in every 10 dogs or cats that carried any kind of Staphylococcus carried the S. aureus strain, and most of those are not infected with MRSA. So, prudence -- not panic -- is the proper mindset.

What should I do if . . .?

If you or a family member receives a dog or cat bite that produces a break in the skin, you should wash the wound promptly with soap and water, cover it with a sterile bandage and seek immediate medical attention at your doctor’s office or the nearest emergency room.

Whether antibiotic treatment is necessary for a particular pet bite is a decision for the treating physician to make. That decision will depend on the depth and seriousness of the bite, whether the bite victim is showing any signs or symptoms of infection, and whether the dog or cat is symptomatic for any infection.

In short . . .

Keep this new risk in mind and treat pet bites appropriately. The authors of the Lancet article put it best: “Clinicians must continue to promote loving pet ownership?and be aware that associated diseases are preventable via recognition, education, and simple precautions.”

Credit: Reviewed by Amy Attas, VMD
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