Pets and immunocompromised patients: What you should know

Why it's important to weigh the pros and cons of pet ownership

Jennifer van Amerom avatar

by Jennifer van Amerom |

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The snoring emanating from my dog, Magnus, is distinctly different from a human’s. His gentle, rhythmic purr, characteristic of pugs, has a mesmerizing yet endearing quality. It’s seamlessly woven itself into the fabric of my daily life, serving as a comforting soundtrack to my existence.

When my previous pug, Marmaduke, passed away, I was confronted with the fact that he’d been my emotional support animal, although I hadn’t realized it. I lasted only two months without his companionship before Magnus came into my life. His presence filled the void left by Marmaduke and was a reminder of the vital role animals play as loyal companions for patients like me who are grappling with the challenges of neuromyelitis optica spectrum disorder (NMOSD) or other chronic illnesses.

But while pets offer unwavering support on our most challenging days, it’s important to acknowledge that owning a pet might carry potential health risks.

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For me, it’s worth the risk

Living with a compromised immune system from NMOSD presents an array of enduring challenges. Take our dietary choices, for instance: Seemingly harmless foods like unwashed raw fruits and veggies, unpasteurized milk, and street vendor food pose hidden risks. Similarly, pet ownership, while immensely rewarding, carries its own set of concerns.

Yet despite these risks, I believe the benefits of pet ownership outweigh the potential hazards, which include animal-transmitted diseases, or zoonoses. While the obvious diseases, such as rabies, can be avoided with pet vaccination, some lesser-known illnesses, including cat scratch disease, can significantly affect patients. Those who have reptiles or rodents or who live close to poultry should exercise caution to prevent salmonella transmission.

Animal feces, such as cat poop, can sometimes carry parasites that are unseen to the human eye, but cause a host of infections. Immunocompromised patients, in fact, are commonly told they shouldn’t clean the litter box or pick up dog feces while on walks.

Patients with pets might also face the challenge of battling one infection after another, a slippery slope of disappointment and frustration.

For almost a month now, for example, I’ve been attempting to recover from pneumonia. My first question to my medical team was, “How does one get pneumonia?” One common way is through droplets in the air. While most people can avoid this exposure, if you’re like me and your cherished dog cuddles have likely given you another infection, it’s more complicated.

Though I’ve become more cautious in my interactions with Magnus, the therapeutic benefits I receive from him are invaluable. I’ve already highlighted the emotional support I’ve gained from owning a pet, but I should also emphasize my reduced feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and depression. That’s because of the boost that comes from the release of oxytocin hormones when I pet my dog.

Having Magnus has also reduced my stress. Interacting with animals can lower cortisol levels, giving me the ability to better handle challenges to my physical health. And on the days when I’m in immense pain, distracting myself with my dog is a much-needed respite.

If you’re immunocompromised and considering pet ownership, be sure to research what having an animal companion entails. I know I wouldn’t be able to care for a pet alone; too many days I need all my energy to care for myself, so I rely on my spouse and our 11-year-old daughter to help care for Magnus. Still, I’m happy to have the benefits of my dog!

Note: Neuromyelitis News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Neuromyelitis News or its parent company, Bionews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to neuromyelitis optica spectrum disorder.


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