Tuesday, June 2, 2015

8 Cuddly Creatures and the Dark, Deadly Diseases They Carry

This is the winning entry submitted for the "Buzzfeed Research Contest" organized by Melanie Fox at BORN TO SCIENCE at the Indiana University School of Medicine.

1. With their fluffy fur coats and fun personalities, some say cats make the best pets. Others say cats are evil.

Cats are the definitive hosts for the parasite Toxoplasma gondii. Pregnant women are asked not to change their cat litter boxes because these parasites can be transmitted through feline waste. If a mother becomes infected during pregnancy, the parasite can cross the placenta and infect the fetus, causing catastrophic effects including brain damage, blindness and even death.

2. Sometimes the dog’s bite is indeed worse than its bark!

Dogs and Rabies, 8 Cuddly Creatures and the Dark, Deadly Diseases They Carry
Rabies can be spread through a dog’s bite. This clever virus is able to travel along nerves all the way to the brain, where it wreaks havoc on the nervous system. Animals infected with rabies show erratic physical movements and can develop paralysis. Other symptoms include having difficulty swallowing, leading to a fear of water (“hydrophobia”) and subsequent drooling. So to keep Fido (and yourself) from foaming at the mouth, make sure to get your puppy pals vaccinated!

3. From the Easter Bunny to Peter Rabbit, rabbits have had their place in our childhood stories. But beware the nightmare: those cute bunnies may carry a bacterium called Francisella tularensis.

Rabbit and Francisella bacterium, 8 Cuddly Creatures and the Dark, Deadly Diseases They Carry
Depending on where the bacterium first contacts its host, Francisella can cause a variety of symptoms in a disease called tularemia. Symptoms of tularemia include ulcers in the skin, pneumonia, vomiting and more rarely, liver and spleen problems.

4. Slow and steady, those long-living turtles seem to represent all that is patient and wise.

Turtles and Salmonella, 8 Cuddly Creatures and the Dark, Deadly Diseases They Carry
They also carry Salmonella, a bacterium that when ingested can cause a potential life-threatening disease whose symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea, and headaches. RecentSalmonella outbreaks have been attributed to contaminated produce (and to pet bearded dragons in 2014), and the CDC estimates that nearly 1.2 million individuals become infected each year, leading to approximately 450 deaths.

5. These cute armored creatures can swim, run, climb, and roll into balls.

Armadillo and Mycobacterium leprae, 8 Cuddly Creatures and the Dark, Deadly Diseases They Carry
The nine-banded armadillo is a reservoir for the bacterium Mycobacterium lepraeMycobacterium leprae causes leprosy, a devastating disease that causes nerve damage and horrific skin lesions.

6. The child’s favorite pet, hamsters are mostly harmless, except when they carry the LCM virus.

Hamsters and the LCM virus (Lymphocytic choriomeningitis, 8 Cuddly Creatures and the Dark, Deadly Diseases They Carry LCM, or lymphocytic choriomeningitus, causes inflammation of the wrappings of the brain and spinal cord. This virus can be acquired by individuals who come in to contact with fresh urine, droppings or dirty bedding from infected rodents, so avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth while handling your furry friend or cleaning their cage.

7. Is that a bird? Is that a plane? No, it’s a flying squirrel!

Flying squirrel and Rickettsia prowazekii, Flying squirrel and Rickettsia prowazekii
And its cargo just might be Rickettsia prowazekii, a bacterium that causes the infamous typhus fever. Infection initially presents with a rash followed by muscle pain and fever which usually last 7-10 days.

8. It’s fun to say ‘chinchillas’ and it’s fun to play with a chinchilla.

Chinchilla and Giardia, Chinchilla and Giardia
But it’s not fun to get Giardia from these little furballs! Giardia is a parasite with a whiplike tail or “flagella” that is commonly found in bodies of water. Interestingly, a study done in Belgium in 2010 found that 66% of pet Chinchillas tested were infected with Giardia. Infection with Giardia, the most frequently diagnosed intestinal parasitic disease in the US, causes an uncomfortable diarrheal disease that can last for multiple weeks and cause severe dehydration.


Your cuddly furry friends can still be your best friends. Just be observant of strange behaviors and signs, get your pets vaccinated if possible, wash your hands after playing with them, and if Junior dares his brother to lick the pet turtle, tell him that is a very bad idea.
Contributed by: Dr. William Sullivan Jr.’s Laboratory, Department of Pharmacology & Toxicology, Microbiology & Immunology at IUSM: Sherri Huang, Imaan Benmerzouga, Joe Varberg, Michael Harris, Leah Padgett, Victoria Jeffers, William Sullivan Jr.

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