AFP – Attitudes towards pet ownership have changed in Asia, with pets becoming an integral part of the family.
However, despite the love we have for our pets, the parasitic infections that ail them can be transmitted to us, leading to devastating effects on our own health.
Even as we have moved into urban cities where our pets are primarily kept indoors, parasites remain a health threat, as certain kinds (known as zoonotic parasites) can affect both animal and human health.
According to a study by pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim and the University of Bari in Italy, which assessed over 2,300 pet cats and dogs in East Asia and Southeast Asia (including Malaysia), almost half (45 per cent) harbour at least one parasite.
And of those pets, 85 per cent live in highly urbanised areas.
The frequency of parasitic infections is usually heightened in resource-poor areas where the lack of access to veterinary care results in worse infections and further transmission.
Here, parasites carried by cats and dogs can cause chronic and serious illnesses in people.
There is a significant need to drive awareness of these infections and explore how we can mitigate the impact that they have on us and our pets.
In Malaysia specifically, almost 89 per cent of cats are infested with fleas.
Such fleas can transmit harmful bacteria, such as Bartonella spp, which causes cat-scratch disease in humans.
Symptoms include fever, headache, poor appetite and exhaustion. Furthermore, almost a quarter of the dogs studied were infected with blood-feeding hookworms, which are among the most common parasites to infect Asians.
This is especially concerning because this species can infect, fully develop and feed on blood in human intestines, leading to an array of symptoms such as abdominal pain, weight loss and anaemia.
Some of these hookworms are also capable of penetrating and crawling under the human skin, causing cutaneous larva migrans (CLM). In Malaysia especially, dogs can play a major role in transmitting CLM to humans.
Lastly, the impact that sick and unwell pets have on the mental health of pet owners can be significant.
We share such a unique and close bond with our pets. At times, they are our confidants, pillars of support and trusted companions.
It is then no surprise that their illnesses can be a source of stress, anxiety and depression in our lives.
Providing a loving and safe home for a cat or a dog is always a good thing, but we need to recognise the responsibility we undertake as pet owners to drive positive change in the health and well-being of our furry loved ones.
In the study, pets that were neutered showed a substantially lower risk of exposure to parasites.
Interestingly, pet owners with a higher life expectancy also showed a similar lower risk.
This link is likely be attributed to improved access to veterinary services, such as vaccination and parasite screening and control programmes.
Ultimately, it comes down to better access to care and services, which should not be limited to just urbanised areas.
If we are to develop effective control strategies that work, we need to expand access to veterinary care beyond the larger urban cities. Collective efforts between pet owners, veterinarians and health authorities are needed to drive this change.
In the past, this type of collaborative approach has resulted in more rapid, efficacious and synergistic efforts in other areas of pet health and welfare.
We can and hope to replicate this success for parasite prevention in the future.
For starters, pet owners should have an open dialogue with their veterinarians about parasite prevention and treatment.
Additionally, partnerships between the public and private veterinary and animal health sectors are essential to establishing accessible educational programmes to further drive awareness, reduce infections, and ultimately, prevent transmission to humans.