Our dog is adorable: his ears are floppy, his tail curls, and his eyes beg you to love him. As I walk around the neighbourhood with our puffball, other parents often stop and ask me how I feel about having a family pet. I tell them the truth: My kids love him—but they apparently don’t love him enough to take care of him properly, so the main responsibilities fall to me. His bowl would stand empty for days if I didn’t fill it, and he could bark at the back door for hours before anyone besides myself noticed. The only other person who takes him for a walk is paid $30 for three hours of her time. It can be frustrating, and sometimes makes me reconsider why we got a pet in the first place.
Having a dog is like having another child, albeit one that never grows up. He’s another live being that I have to manage. At the back of my mind—right after thoughts of my kids and what to make for dinner that night—is a guilt ratio based on the time I’ve spent walking him that day and how long he’s been left home alone. When that ratio is severely out of balance, he will take out his anger on the kids’ favourite toys and, sometimes, my sleep.
But even though our dog smells like a garbage dump, my kids still smother him with kisses and hugs, and he reciprocates by licking them all over their faces. Which, to be honest, I find really gross. Despite all this—the work, the guilt, the grossness—I realize there are benefits to having a family pet: Researchers claim having an animal around the house makes kids more empathetic. Studies have also shown that kids who grow up with pets are less likely to have allergies than kids who’ve never spent a lot of time around animals. The working theory is that exposure to pets in infancy can strengthen a child’s immune system and reduce the odds of developing some allergic diseases. These are all good things!
However, it turns out I’m right to be a little grossed out by all those open-mouthed kisses. Pets can still transmit infectious diseases (called zoonoses) to people, especially pregnant women, young children, seniors and those with weakened immune systems. A recent study, released in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ), compiled a list of diseases people can get from their pets, such as salmonella and parasites such as roundworm. Infections can be transmitted via bites, scratches, saliva (oh, all those doggie kisses!) and contact with feces.
But even I, the non-dog-lover of the family, don’t think this report should deter families from owning a pet. If there are any concerns, parents should discuss their pet choices with both their family doctor and a veterinarian before committing. But now that I know I have science on my side, I won’t sound like such a curmudgeon anymore when I shudder at those icky dog kisses or tell people they should think long and hard before getting a family pet.