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Pets Could be Source of Multi-Resistant Bacteria Infections in Humans, MU Researchers Investigate

Pets Could be Source of Multi-Resistant Bacteria Infections in HumansThe next time you have difficulty fighting a bacterial infection, your next trip to the doctor might be to the family veterinarian. A new University of Missouri-Columbia study is investigating whether the family pet could be a reservoir for infections of multi-resistant bacteria in humans.

Antibiotic resistant bacteria are a growing problem in the medical profession as doctors are prescribing second and third choice medicines when common antibiotics don't work. In many cases, these other medicines might be less effective or cause more side effects. One particular type of bacterium, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), which can be fatal in humans, is the focus of a new research project led by MU veterinarians Stephanie Kottler, Leah Cohn and John Middleton.

"We used to think of these antibiotic-resistant infections as a healthcare issue that appeared in post-operative or long-term patients," said Kottler, a resident at the MU Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital. "However, we have been seeing more of these infections that have been acquired throughout the general population, or 'community acquired' infections. It's important to know what environmental factors might be encouraging or prolonging these infections."

MRSA bacteria can live in the noses or on the skin of humans and animals where it might not produce any symptoms. The bacteria become dangerous when they enter the tissue through a cut or puncture, producing a serious infection. In some cases, the bacteria can cause life-threatening problems, such as bloodstream infections or pneumonia. While the infections are most often found in patients after hospitalization, there is an increasing occurrence of community-acquired infections among prison populations, sports teams, military personnel and the general public. Kottler believes that pets might be an important factor behind the increase in community-acquired infections.

MRSA rates have increased dramatically since the 1970s. In 1974, MRSA infections accounted for two percent of the total number of staphylococcal infections; in 1995 it was 22 percent, and in 2004, it was 63 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

"This study will help us evaluate the various risk factors associated with this problem," said Middleton, an associate professor of food animal internal medicine. "Are pets a risk factor? This study will help us track where the disease started and determine what questions the physician should be asking if a patient is diagnosed with MRSA."

Currently, the Mizzou researchers, aided by J. Scott Weese, an assistant professor at the University of Guelph Ontario Veterinary College in Canada, are taking samples from 750 to 800 pairs of owners and pets. To date, they have collected about 500 samples and are sorting them into three groups: human healthcare workers and pets, veterinary healthcare workers and pets, and non-healthcare professionals and pets.

The study is being funded by the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine Foundation and the MU Department of Veterinary Medicine and Surgery.

For more information about zoonotic diseases, click here.

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Last Update: February 24, 2012