I’ve been getting a lot of questions lately about something out there called MRSA infections and whether or not our pets can be a source for this infection. For many years now, my human counterparts have had to deal with this problem among themselves and their patients, so what I have to say may be old news. And I’ll start like I do every time I attempt to make the complicated and chaotic more understandable by saying this stuff is not easy, and there are no precise answers. A excellent, very detailed, five-page, Q&A report is available on the American Veterinary Medical Association website. http://www.avma.org/animal_health/mrsa_faq.asp

MRSA is a short-handed way of saying methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus. Because not everybody reading this has a Bachelor’s degree in biology, I’ll break this term down a bit. First, Staphylococcus aureus (sometimes referred to simply as “Staph”) is the name of a bacteria. For those who aren’t sure, a bacteria is a very small one-celled creature. They are so small that there are more bacteria living in each of our intestinal tracts than there are people living on the whole planet. There are 33 known species (“family members”) of Staphylococcus bacteria and they are found nearly everywhere. Methicillin is an antibiotic that was often used to treat Staph. aureus. MRSA, therefore, is a bacterial Staph infection that is resistant (cannot be cured) to methicillin. This infection at one time was thought to be only found in people, but now is emerging as a cause of disease in horses, dogs, cats, pet birds, cattle and pigs.

Until fairly recently, MRSA was thought to be strictly transmitted to our pets from infected or colonized people. Let me break this statement down as well. All living creatures can have an active infection by a bacteria (Strep. throat, Staph. skin infection, Lyme disease, etc.) or we can be simply colonized, asymptomatic (without any signs of obvious disease) carriers of the bacterial disease. It used to be thought that if your pet had a MRSA infection, or was asymptomatically colonized (without obvious disease), that he/she caught it from their owner. But this may no longer be the case.

I can hear almost hear my beloved readers shouting the following question: And so Doc, are some animals more prone to MRSA infections than others?” The answer is yes!!! The following is pretty much taken word for word from the American Veterinary Medical Association recommendations:

For small animals (dogs, cats, and pet birds), your pet is at greater risk if
—they live with immunocompromised people.
—they live with human health care workers.
—they live with veterinary clinic personnel.
—they are involved with therapeutic visits to hospitals, nursing homes, long-term care facilities. This last one really breaks my heart to have to say!!!

For large animals (horses, cattle, and pigs) some risk factors are:
—nasal/facial contact with human handlers.
—transportation/sale of animals (spreading the risk of transmission from exposed animals to non-exposed animals).

The subject of MRSA can go on for ten more articles, but I want to address one more issue. Because I have a lot of dedicated and loving humanitarians whose life’s work are in the healthcare fields and who are also treasured clients of mine, the following precautions (again, this is directly from the AVMA recommendations) should be considered. This applies especially to therapeutic animal visits:

—Good hand hygiene by all who encounter the animal, both before and after touching the animal.
—Licking should be prevented, as well as “shaking paws” – even if the animal’s paws are clean before they enter the health-care facility, the floors may be contaminated.
—Handlers are restricted to bringing one animal during each visit, and must keep the animal on a leash or in a carrier.
—Animals should be restricted to interaction only with the patients and their families.
—When placing an animal on a bed, a clean towel or absorbent pad should be placed between the pet and the bed linens.
—No animals should visit patients in isolation units.(In my humble opinion, this is the saddest one.)
—Although therapeutic animals are expected to be clean, bathing an animal prior to each visit is not recommended, unless the animal smells or is soiled.

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