Browsey was an adorable terrier mix with the playful energy and brisk trot of a dog half her age. Even at her advanced 13 years, she was often mistaken for a puppy.
But soon after owner Patti McCracken, of Chicago, moved to a new apartment, Browsey started acting old—forgetting where she lived and walking in odd, repetitive circles. McCracken took the dog to several stumped vets. Finally, one asked McCracken, “How are you feeling?”
Surprised, McCracken brought up the extreme fatigue, mysterious aches, and wicked optic migraines—she would lose vision in one eye for several minutes at a time—she’d suffered for the past few months. “I’ve been tested for everything,” she told the vet. “No one can find anything wrong with me.”
“It sounds like a gas leak,” the vet said. “Either that or lead in your drinking water.”
Sure enough, the gas company employee McCracken called later that day found that the furnace in her apartment building was producing carbon monoxide, which was sickening McCracken, Browsey, and several other residents.
We humans can share many disease symptoms with our four-legged friends.
Our pets can serve as crucial reflectors of our physical well-being, says Nancy Soares, owner and medical director of Macungie Animal Hospital in Pennsylvania. And vice versa. Sometimes the connection is obvious, as when Chattanooga, TN, veterinarian (and author of Tennessee Tails: Pets and Their People) Kathryn Primm walked into an exam room and saw a Labrador retriever so obese, he resembled a walking coffee table. Then she noticed his just-as-obese owner. A year after Primm advised the owner to get active with his best friend—and suggested that both swap unhealthy treats for green beans—the dog had dropped 15 pounds, and his owner looked trimmer, too.
The CDC estimates that about 6 in 10 infectious diseases that humans get can be passed to or from animals. So not only can you give, say, the ringworm fungus to your dog, but he can also catch things and pass them on to you. In many cases, the symptoms are similar. For instance, a pet with ringworm will get the same type of crusty rash as you might, and vomiting and diarrhea can be a sign in both pets and humans of a bacterial infection caused by E. coli or Salmonella.
But sometimes the bestowal of poor health goes in only one direction. Well-intentioned people smoke outdoors to protect their pets but don’t realize that the nicotine stays on their hands and can cause skin problems and even cancer in their pets.
Learning about this and other ties between human and animal health can be powerful motivation to get healthy, says Soares. “In taking that journey together with your pet, you have a purpose—and you have each other.”