America is a nation that loves its pets, and it's impossible to put a value on the pleasure that our furry, feathery, or even scaly friends provide.
However, on the negative side of the ledger, there are some health costs that often go overlooked but which can sometimes have serious or even deadly consequences.
We've all become accustomed in recent times to fears over swine flu and bird flu, but the health risks posed by animals don't need to include the word pandemic in order to be worthy of our awareness and diligence in minimizing.
Neither do the animals need to be mighty of claw or fangs, as we'll see as we run through five of the most common health threats posed by household pets.
Up first, this pet could leave you Itchy And Scratchy ...
In the world of "The Simpsons," Itchy and Scratchy are a cartoon mouse and a cartoon cat, and the mouse goes around inflicting pain on the cat.
In many households, however, it may be cats that pass on the pain by causing an allergic reaction to those who suffer from skin conditions.
Of course, the exposure to animal fur (whether cat or other animal) isn't the cause of eczema. It just happens to be one irritant that may trigger an outbreak of eczema, and there are many other irritants that exacerbate the condition, such as house dust and pollen.
Therefore, before banning Fluffy or Fido from the house, it's worth asking for patch testing to determine which allergens are the specific trigger for your eczema or your kid's.
Ever wonder when a worm isn't really a worm?
Dogs may be man's best friend, with cats not far behind, but both are frequently responsible for instances where humans develop ringworm. Despite its name, ringworm is a fungal infection rather than being caused by any worm.
Ringworm is an example of a zoonotic disease, one that can be transmitted from animals to humans. Infection can be transmitted either through contact with a ringworm-infected pet or with its bedding or other items that it has been in contact with.
Circular bare patches on the pet's skin may signify the presence of ringworm, although, frustratingly, an animal can sometimes play host to the condition without displaying any telltale signs.
Ringworm leads to itchy discomfort, but the good news is that it is easily treatable with topical agents and should be eradicated within a couple of weeks.
Take a deep breath before you read about our next health risk ...
Just as exposure to animal fur can inflame eczema, it can also add to asthma problems.
Asthma is a common respiratory condition that is normally treated effectively through the use of inhalers. However, the condition can escalate into a full asthma attack, which is very dangerous and can be fatal.
There is a high linkage between people suffering from asthma and eczema and being allergic to animal hair and saliva. While cats and dogs are the most common culprits, asthma sufferers may suffer an allergic reaction to a wide range of animals, including mice, rats, rabbits, and horses.
Regular vacuuming, avoiding excessive skin to fur contact, and choosing animals species that aren't heavy molters may minimize the effects.
However, where animal allergens are contributing to persistent and severe asthma, the best course of action may be to find a new home for your pets.
But even if your pet doesn't have any fur, there are still risks ...
With animal hair a common allergen, there may be a temptation to move away altogether from mammals as pets.
A common choice therefore might have been to opt for a tortoise, lizard, or snake. However, these exotic reptilian pets also pose a health hazard, namely the threat of salmonellosis.
Salmonellosis is an infective disease and can be transmitted from more conventional pets such as dogs and cats. With reptiles, the salmonella bacteria can be transmitted directly from their skin and can cause a range of nasty symptoms including vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and dehydration.
Some simple precautions can minimize the risk of infection. For example, it is recommended that reptile owners wash their hands following contact, and that they don't allow children to put the reptiles in their mouth or kiss them!
Last up, Polly want a cracker?
It's not just four-legged animals that can cause health risks for their human owners.
Parrots are popular pets, much loved for their intelligence and personality. However, birds such as parrots and macaws can pass on an infection called psittacosis. As that's a bit of a mouthful, the disease is often referred to instead as parrot fever.
Parrot fever is a pneumonia caused by the chlamydia bacteria, and typical symptoms include fever, diarrhea, and severe headaches. Although rarely fatal, it can be a serious condition and treatment with antibiotics is often prescribed.
The transmission of the disease from birds to humans is facilitated through handling a sick bird or cleaning its cage.
Signs that your pet may have the condition include shedding of feathers, inflamed eyes, and difficulty in breathing. Taking care to thoroughly wash your hands following handling will minimize the risk of acquiring parrot fever.