By Stephanie Stahl

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Why do some people get serious infections after being licked by a pet? Millions of people are licked by their pets every day and it’s perfectly harmless. But there have been a handful of people who have developed serious infections from their pets and now researchers have found a potential link.

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Scientists have identified a gene connected to the immune system that might explain why five otherwise healthy people developed severe reactions to a germ that’s in the saliva of dogs and cats.

“She loves kids. She loves puppies and other dogs,” Greg Manteufel said about his beloved dog, Ellie.

credit: CBS3

But being licked by her triggered an infection that caused him to lose parts of his arms and legs, skin from his nose and part of his upper lip. A bacteria in the dog’s saliva called capnocytophaga almost never leads to people getting sick, unless the person has a compromised immune system.

credit: CBS3

“I was healthy my whole life, never had anything wrong with me until I was 48 years old and then just something like this to hit me that quick and hard, it was kind of difficult to deal with,” he said.

He is taking part in a study at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, where researchers identified a genetic variant that could explain why some people are susceptible to the bacteria in animal saliva.

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“We know that not everybody with these genetic changes would definitely go on to develop capno or other infections. But we are identifying this as a risk factor,” Elizabeth Fieg, the hospital’s genetic counselor, says. “For many of our patients, including Greg, this is a real medical mystery.”

Manteufel is now in rehab – getting use to his prosthetics while he waits for test results to confirm he has the genetic variation. Researchers are continuing to look for other possible risk factors.

“So the stakes are high and the findings of our research, we think, has implications for how people are treated and managed,” Fieg added.

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Manteufel is planning to have reconstructive plastic surgery.

Researchers also say they are gathering more evidence, but the hope is to publish their study within the next year.

Stephanie Stahl