Patti Edwards says she doesn't get sick often.

But on a Sunday night a few years ago - she doesn't remember exactly when - the Danbury, Wis., woman wasn't feeling well. Thinking she had a cold coming on, she took some Alka Seltzer Plus and went to bed.

Edwards, who lived alone, woke up feeling worse. She stayed home from work and became violently ill, she said. She barely remembers her daughter coming to see her and offering to take her to the doctor's office. She refused, choosing to tough it out.

Monday night was even worse. She went to sleep but woke up after falling out of bed. She tried to get up, but her legs buckled beneath her. She crawled to the bathroom and fell against the tub, bruising herself. Eventually, Edwards said, she made it back to bed and managed to fall asleep.

Tuesday morning, her daughter took her to the doctor's office in Grantsburg, Wis. She was admitted to the hospital and spent one night there before being transferred to Regions Hospital in St. Paul.

"And after a week there, they tell me it's from a dog," the 58-year-old related.

It's not just her.

Tens of thousands of Americans get sick from infections spread by animals, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. The term for it is zoonotics.

Perhaps it's not surprising when one considers how much contact occurs between animals and humans, whether in agriculture, outdoor adventures or with household pets.

It's nothing new, but it's possibly happening more often than it used to.

'A rare infection'

"I think that some infections are becoming more common when we think of diseases that we can get from wildlife just because of the way that humans are encroaching upon habitat that used to be solely for wildlife," said Dr. Jennifer Granick, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine who specializes in zoonotics.

Occasionally the animal-to-people disease connection gets more attention, as when the Washington Post reported in August that a West Bend, Wis., man had to have his legs and hands amputated after he was infected by a bacteria from a dog that licked him.

Before you banish your Boston terrier to the basement, be assured that what happened to that man was an aberration.

"Yes, that is a rare infection," Granick said. "That bacteria that infected the gentleman in Wisconsin is a normal bacteria that's found in the mouth of cats and dogs. If you think about the number of cats and dogs that not just share homes but probably ice cream cones with people, if it was something that was more contagious, you would hear a lot more about it."

When it comes to pet-caused infections, Granick said the most common source is what you'd probably expect: bites.

Any bite is something that should be taken seriously.

"If we have a bite wound, we don't wait for it to become an infection," Granick said. "We send those folks right away to the doctor to get appropriate therapy."

'Very sharp teeth'

Edwards said she's pretty sure she knows where her infection started, although the bite seemed minor at the time.

She was playing with her daughter's puppy, Edwards said, when she commented on how sharp its teeth were.

"Because I pulled my hand up," she related. "I don't know if I was bleeding or not, but it was scratched. That little puppy had some very sharp teeth."

A veterinarian for 15 years, Granick said she experienced bites early in her career, including one from a cat that sent her to the emergency room. A bacteria in a cat's bite can make someone very ill if they're not treated, she said, so she received antibiotics.

But the good news when it comes to pets is that cross-species infections can be largely prevented by taking common-sense precautions, Granick said.

Her suggestions:

• Wear gloves or some sort of hand protection when handling urine and feces.

• Wash your hands after contact with animals.

• Don't approach animals that you don't know.

• Take your pet to the veterinarian for preventative care. Vaccinations and deworming can protect you as well as your pet.

• If you get bit, seek medical attention immediately.

It happens that the bacteria that attacked Edwards was Capnocytophaga, the same bacteria that infected the West Bend man. But Edwards fully recovered without drastic measures.

The experience caused her to be much more careful for a while, she said. She wouldn't even touch her own dog without wearing gloves. But she stopped doing that, and she doesn't wash her hands after handling the dog, either.

"I think about it briefly, but I don't," Edwards said.

However, she vows if she ever experiences symptoms like she did when her illness started, she'll call an ambulance right away.

Granick doesn't want people to refrain from having pets. Scientific evidence demonstrates that the health benefits from pets - in terms of cardiovascular and emotional health - far outweigh any risk, she said.

"The main point is that people shouldn't get too worried," Granick said. "I try to make sure that my pets don't lick mouths and faces, but sometimes that's hard. But, you know, I've got young kids, and I've got two dogs and a cat in my house. I'm not worried."