Doctors explain rare deadly infection linked to dog saliva

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – A bacteria most dogs have in their saliva is something you can contract if your pet bites you.

A Wisconsin woman died suddenly at the end of June after her family’s new dog nipped at her, causing a small cut.

After severe flu-like symptoms, Sharon Larson was rushed to the hospital and died two days later. Larson’s doctors say this deadly infection was linked to her dog’s saliva.

Capnocytophaga is a bacteria veterinarians at UT Veterinary Hospital say three-quarters of dogs have.

“It’s a normal flora that lives in their mouth and it’s not a big deal,” said Dr. Marcy Souza, a professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. 

The bacteria does not make your cat or dog sick. Doctors say it’s incredibly rare for those organisms to be transmitted to humans, but if it happens, it’s with people with severely weakened immune systems.

“It’s really important for people who have severe liver disease or people who’ve lost their spleen, those patients if they’re bitten by a dog would need preventative antibiotics,” said Dr. Mark Rasnake, an infectious diseases physician at University of Tennessee Medical Center.

RELATED: Wisconsin man contracts rare blood infection from dog

The signs and symptoms generally feel like catching a cold or coming down with the flu.

“The wound may not even look infected with capnocytophaga. So, you can’t rely on it starting to look bad on your hand before you get sick. This is one of those bacteria that once it gets in your body, it can spread rapidly through your blood stream and the wound itself may not look too bad,” said Dr. Rasnake.

He says if you have pets in your home, you’re exposed to this bacteria every day, though there are preventative steps you can take.

“Don’t get completely worried and freaked out. If you’re ever bitten, scratched or licked, make sure you do good hygiene where you wash that area with good warm water and soap, clean it up,” added Dr. Souza.

Albert Murrian runs a pet care business in downtown Knoxville. While he takes care of many dogs, and has one of his own, he says he’s never really worried about getting sick.

“If a dog accidentally bites me, I always wash my hands,” said Murrian.

After learning about capnocytophaga Murrian says, “It’s good to know. It’s definitely something to think about.”

Cats can carry this bacteria as well, and while it is rare, it can be transmitted through bites, scratches and close contact. The CDC says if you are bitten, even if you do not feel sick, call your physician immediately.

Vets say your pet can be tested for this bacteria but results may change because the organism is passed simply by contact with other animals.

If you’re at a higher risk of infection, speak to your doctor about precautions you can take when coming into contact with animals.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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