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MRSA infection can spread between humans and pets, study says

June 24, 2009 |  3:42 pm

MRSA Transmissions of a type of staph infection called methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA,  between pets and their owners are on the rise, according to a new study. 

Doctors at the University of South Florida's College of Medicine, writing in the Lancet Infectious Diseases journal, say the infection can be spread from animal to human or human to animal. Our colleague Shari Roan explains on The Times' health blog, Booster Shots:

MRSA is an infection that has become more troublesome in recent years. It spreads easily through skin wounds and can be difficult to treat. Household pets are now considered a reservoir for MRSA, and skin infections in dogs and cats can be spread to humans through bites, said the author of the study, Dr. Richard Oehler of the University of South Florida College of Medicine.

Severe infections (MRSA as well as other germs) from cat and dog bites occur in about 20% of all bite injuries. These infections are thought to be caused by the bacteria carried by the pet as well as germs on human skin. Dog and cat bites cause about 1% of all emergency room visits each year. Bites to the hands, forearms, neck and head have the most potential for serious infection.

Mark Enright, a British expert on MRSA, was quick to point out that MRSA infections resulting from animal bites may not indicate that the animal had passed the infection to the human.  "MRSA might be on a person's skin and, as they get bitten, it goes inside," Enright explained in a BBC interview.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention appeared to agree with Enright. "Most MRSA in humans is acquired by direct contact with other humans. In most cases, MRSA in companion animals is a result of humans exposing the animals to MRSA, so pets can become colonized or infected with MRSA by contact with colonized or infected humans," according to a statement the CDC provided to the New Scientist.

Regardless of who carried the bacteria first, Oehler warns that good hygiene is of primary importance in avoiding infection. "Wash hands before and after pet contact, and be wary of dogs licking your face, any medical devices or open wounds," he told the New Scientist. "Also, be aware of your pet's health status, and keep open wounds on yourself and your pet covered when you're in contact with each other."

-- Lindsay Barnett

Photo: Gram-positive bacteria (Staphylococcus aureus). Credit: Visuals Unlimited

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