This winter, when you are home sick with the cold or flu cuddling with your dog or cat may feel like just what the doctor ordered.
A Vanderbilt infectious disease expert, while stopping short of actually prescribing in-home “pet therapy” for colds or flu, says that if having your companion by your side makes you feel better, go right ahead. Pets won’t catch or spread human viruses.
“The pet is a comfort, not a hazard,” said William Schaffner, M.D., professor of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Even somebody who pets the dog or cat after you is unlikely to catch your virus that way, and “you can’t get a cold or the flu from your dog or cat,” Schaffner said.
While pets are pretty much off the hook, Schaffner says the true hazard in catching a virus comes from fellow two-legged creatures. “Flu is transmitted person-to-person through close personal contact. If you get within my breathing zone, within three feet, I can transfer the influenza virus to you. I breathe it out, you breathe it in, and you can be infected,” Schaffner said.
Colds and flu can also be transmitted by hand — handshaking extroverts take note — or via some surfaces, such as when a sick person touches a doorknob, for example, and somebody else touches the same surface, and then touches his or her face.
“People should wash their hands often and use hand sanitizer,” Schaffner said. “Also, when flu is rampant in the community, greet friends with an elbow bump rather than a handshake.”
People and their pets have this in common: the best way to avoid getting sick is to be immunized — with pets it’s their annual vaccinations, and with people it’s a flu shot.
The difference is, Schaffner noted, people don’t get a shiny tag to wear showing that they are up-to-date on immunizations.