Dog owner licked by pet dies after suffering ‘multi-organ’ failure

A 63-year-old man died from an infection after being licked by his dog.

The man’s case, published in the European Journal of Case Reports in Internal Medicine, revealed that he had touched and was licked by his dog in the weeks prior to becoming ill. Doctors eventually discovered that the man had been infected with a bacteria known as Capnocytophaga canimorsus, which lives in the saliva of dogs and cats.

Dogs (and cats) have bacteria in their mouths that, in rare cases, can cause a serious, and even fatal, infection in humans. (Photo: Getty Images)
Dogs (and cats) have bacteria in their mouths that, in rare cases, can cause a serious, and even fatal, infection in humans. (Photo: Getty Images)

He arrived at the hospital with flu-like symptoms and labored breathing. His condition grew worse over the next 30 hours, according to the case report. The man went into cardiac arrest, but doctors were able to resuscitate him. The tissue in the man’s extremities then started to die, turning gangrenous. He eventually developed septic shock with fatal multi-organ failure and died.

A similar story happened this past summer to an Ohio dog owner, Marie Trainer, who experienced flu-like symptoms after becoming infected with the same bacteria and ended up having her hands and legs partially amputated. However, she survived the infection.

So how common is this bacteria?

Before you ban your beloved pet from licking you, keep in mind that the odds of infection are very low. “Capnocytophaga canimorsus is actually a rare cause of infections,” Julie Mangino, MD, infectious disease physician at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

That said, the infection can be fatal in 25 percent of patients, according to the study authors.

“It is harmful if it gets into the body either through contact with a scratch on your skin or just by contact with the animal’s saliva, which gets into a person’s bloodstream,” explains Mangino. “It can wreak havoc and lead to sepsis. Sepsis occurs as an inflammatory reaction within the body that may lead organs within the body to shut down.”

Certain risk factors make people more vulnerable to the bacterial infection — namely, excessive alcohol use/abuse, people who have had their spleen surgically removed (splenectomy), and those with a compromised immune system (such as people with cancer, diabetes and HIV), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “It causes severe disease in people who have a form of immune deficiency such as HIV/AIDS, are on steroids or other immune-suppressive medications such as chemotherapy,” says Mangino. The infections are more likely to occur in adults over 40 years old, according to the CDC.

However, even without those risk factors, it’s still possible to become infected. Clinical and lab tests show the man in the case study had none of those health issues before becoming infected.

What should pet owners do?

It’s worth noting that “most contact with dogs and cats does not lead to a Capnocytophaga infection or any illness, even after a bite,” according to the CDC.

However, “it is important to remember that even though our pets are like family to us, they are still animals,” Mangino tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Their mouth has a lot of bacteria in it and a bite or a scratch, which the owner may consider to be ‘just nothing,’ can lead to serious consequences as in these two recent stories, whereby one patient died and the other developed gangrene and ultimately lost her hands and legs.”

If you’re a dog or cat owner and experience flu-like symptoms, the study authors stress that you should “urgently seek medical advice when their symptoms exceed those of a simple viral infection.” The study authors also recommend that physicians ask patients with flu-like symptoms whether they have any contact with dogs and cats.

If you’re bitten by a dog or cat, whether or not it’s your own pet, the CDC recommends washing the bite area immediately with soap and water and calling your doctor right away — even if you don’t feel sick. That’s because acting fast is crucial: “Some infections [of Capnocytophaga] can progress very quickly, result in sepsis, and lead to death within 24 to 72 hours after symptoms start,” according to the CDC.

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