There were about 3.5 million pet dogs in Korea as of the end of 2004, the Korean Kennel Club estimates. That means one in three households has a dog. While the birthrate among humans is decreasing at an alarming rate, the dog population is multiplying by 10 percent a year, a KKC spokesman says.
But while man's best friend and other furry companions may be an important emotional prop for modern man and woman, pets are also a key "vector," as the scientists say, for disease, besides allergies of varying severity that can be caused by the fur of cats and dogs themselves.
Dr. Choi Ho-cheol, a dermatologist at Cha Hospital, says direct contact with animal hair or allergens like mites that live in the pet's fur can cause allergies in people with sensitive atopic skin. The only solution for such people is not to keep a pet. Doctors say longer hair that tangles easily also harbors more unpleasantness, so long-haired dogs and cats should be groomed frequently and treated with antibacterial agents after washing.
Cats cause allergies not just with their hair. Allergens also exist in the sweat glands, so they spread fast in the air and they are not easy to remove. Even an empty house can be full of allergens if the previous inhabitants had cats.
Then there are parasites. Canine roundworm (toxocara canis) spreads though dog excrement. In humans, it can cause vomiting, diarrhea, intestinal inflammation and, in more serious cases, blindness. There is nothing to worry about if you vaccinate your dog and feed it worm treatments regularly.
The problem is stray and neglected dogs. Roundworm is discharged in dog excrement and thence into dirt or sand nearby. So even if you don't have a dog at home, be careful when you pass by dog waste in the park or playground. Prof. Hwang Cheol-yong of Seoul National University's Veterinary College warns especially of contact with the waste of strays.
Increasing numbers of people now also live with something more exotic, and those imported species, dull pets though they often make, bring in a whole new menagerie of bacterial infections. Iguanas, the most popular reptiles for their gentleness despite a rather ferocious appearance, can carry pathogenic bacteria such as salmonella, staphylococcus and campylobacter. Drawn by the appeal of outlandish species, pet owners too often become careless, and boards devoted to rare pet animals are full of inquiries what to do when bitten by poisonous insects or reptiles.
The discussions betray confusion all round. When a message recently asked what to do about a swollen arm after being bitten by a pet spider, answers were all over the place. "Disinfect the wound and apply some medicine," advised one helpful member. "Go to the hospital to get the poison out," urged another. One rare pet animal club manager says, "You have to first find out everything about the animal before you get one, and you should be very careful with animals people bring back from their travels abroad because they haven’t been checked for toxicity."