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Should You Kick Your Dog Out of Bed Tonight?

On a slow news day, here's a media rule of thumb: Run a pet story. Tales of cute animals sell newspapers and magazines like nothing else.

Except for last Thursday.

AOL News bucked the time-honored tradition of giving priority consideration to, say, firefighters bravely rushing in to rescue a drowning dog by running a different breed of shaggy-dog story.

Instead of something sweet, AOL served up this scarily sensationalist headline: "Letting Sleeping Dogs Lie in Your Bed Can Kill You." The article, by AOL Senior Public Health Correspondent Andrew Schneider, is a classic example of a news genre that's becoming all too common in the mainstream media: call it, "Petsploitation."

Scientific evidence has proven conclusively that animal companions are best friends with health benefits: they relieve human stress, lower human blood pressure, decrease cholesterol and triglyceride levels, increase human immune function, and just generally lift human spirits. Simply petting a dog does all of the above; is it any wonder statistics show that 56 percent of dog owners, this writer included, sleep with their dog next to them?

Now, a couple of attention-seeking California veterinarians, experts in zoonoses (diseases or infections transmitted from animals to humans) want Spot off your bed, right now -- and they got a big boost from Schneider, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. In a study to be published in next month's issue of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's publication Emerging Infectious Diseases, Drs. Bruno Chomel, a professor at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine, and Ben Sun, chief veterinarian for California's Department of Health, allege that

...the risk for transmission of zoonotic agents by close contact between pets and their owners through bed sharing, kissing, or licking is real and has even been documented for life-threatening infections such as plague, internal parasites...

Following immediately on the above quote, AOL's Schneider adds his own ominously alarmist two cents:  -- "and other serious diseases."

For proof, Schneider cites the following from the forthcoming CDC report:

* A 9-year-old boy from Arizona got the plague because he slept with his flea-infested cat.

* A 48-year-old man and his wife repeatedly contracted MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), which their physicians eventually attributed to their dog. The animal "routinely slept in their bed and frequently licked their face," the California experts reported.

In a not-uncommon scenario, the doctors treating the couple with MRSA couldn't quite figure out exactly how his patients contracted MRSA, which may be transmitted any number of ways. So rather than appear indecisive, they blamed the couple's dog. For a stumped diagnostician -- or a reporter facing a slow news day -- pets are an easy scapegoat. Schneider writes: "Kissing pets can also transmit zoonoses. A Japanese woman contacted meningitis after kissing her pet's face."

Um, is it just possible the Japanese woman's pet isn't the only one she locked lips with? Like many diseases, meningitis can be transmitted from human to human. And what kind of "pet" did the Japanese woman kiss -- or doesn't that matter? Schneider continues:

But disease can easily be transmitted by your pet kissing you. The study cited cases where a woman died of septic shock and renal failure after her cat, with whom she slept, licked open sores on her feet and toes. In another case, a 44-year-old man died of infection after his German shepherd puppy licked open abrasions on his hands.

This indicates a disturbing trend: When in doubt, diagnosticians won't hesitate to blame the nearest animal when an illness's true culprit is unknown. But dogs aren't the only scapegoats. Succumbing to an anti-feline MSM bias we've seen before, Schneider writes:

As strange as it may be to canine lovers, more people have cats than dogs, and these felines also carry disease. This study and several others show that disease from cats is far more prevalent, and often more serious.

The number of cats snuggling up with their owner is far greater, which may explain the larger number of people acquiring feline-spawned diseases, Chomel explained.

Take cat scratch disease, for example. The bacterial infection, caused by Bartonella henselae, comes from infected fleas and flea feces and is transmitted to humans, often simply by a cat strolling across a food preparation area that isn't disinfected before food is placed on it. Mostly, the victims of cat scratch disease are children, infected by the scratch, lick or bite of a cat. The pathogen can cause swelling of the lymph nodes and sometime lethal damage to the liver, kidney and spleen of humans.

The CDC estimates that more than 20,000 people can contract cat scratch disease a year, but the federal disease agency could offer no information on the number of deaths.

If there's no information on the exact number of deaths, isn't this hearsay? Just because "20,000 people can contract cat scratch disease a year" doesn't mean that 20,000 people actually do. According to the CDC's own site,

Although animals can carry germs, it is important to know that you are more likely to get some of these germs from contaminated food or water than from your pet or another animal you encounter.

"None of this is really new news," says Dr. Elizabeth Higgins, staff veterinarian at the Humane Society of New York clinic:

These are isolated cases that don't definitively prove anything. If people are responsible about vaccinations, flea control, and heartworm prevention, which prevents a wide range of parasites, then sleeping with pets doesn't put us at any more risk than living with pets. Prevention is simple with common-sense hygiene and regular vet visits. To contract intestinal parasites from a pet, you'd have to ingest the animal's feces; as long as the person cleaning up after the pet washes their hands or uses sanitizing wipes, there's very little risk.

I have three cats and three dogs; two of my cats and one of my dogs sleep with me, and another dog sleeps with my daughter. And everybody's alive and well in our house. I think, overall, our mental and emotional well-being far outweighs the minimal risks of contracting something. My pets are up on the couch and my kids are hugging and kissing them - I'm not going to put a stop to that. I know I would be a lot more stressed if I didn't have my pets at home - and the more stressed you are, the more susceptible you are to illness. My family's dogs and cats bring us comfort and strengthen our immune system.

It's easy for the MSM to exploit pets because obviously, they can't speak up for themselves. But with animals proven to advance human wellness, pets deserve not to be demonized as so many bundles of contagion or opportunistic infection, and pet coverage needs to be taken more seriously. It merits the same level of accurate, responsible, balanced reporting -- complete with hard facts, not hearsay -- as any other new topic.

A sensationalist, clearly biased story such as Schneider's merely speculates about a potential public health hazard where none actually exists. Not surprisingly, AOL swings both ways when exploiting pets for fun and profit: When it's not publishing anti-pet articles like this one, it's taking a decidedly pro-pet position on its dedicated animal site, Paw Nation. As my colleague Maria Goodavage writes in her daily blog on Dogster.com:

I hope that when the [CDC] study is published, it doesn’t get blown out of proportion by the popular press and cause people to start kicking their beloved pets out of bed. Flea control and hand (face?) washing can probably go a long way to reducing whatever risk there may be.

Well said, Maria, except media-manufactured panic about zoonotic diseases has far more serious ramifications than pets getting kicked out of bed. It's more likely to result in pets getting kicked to the curb. When the MSM exploits animals with cruelly irresponsible reporting, the consequences are serious. Sadly, this species of "news story" spreads the kind of panic that deters people from adopting pets and motivates pet owners to abandon their animals. With literally millions of dogs and cats languishing in our country's animal shelters, this is no time for the mighty MSM to be scaring readers off of keeping pets.

Animal shelters all over the country are reporting serious overcrowding, with as many as 8 million healthy, adoptable pets put to sleep each year. In California, where the CDC report's authors are based, the situation is especially dire, with the state's municipal animal shelters having to kill thousands of healthy, adoptable dogs and cats for want of space and adopters.

Even if you don't care for animals other than as food sources, as an American taxpayer, such appalling waste of your money is sure to give you pause.