Pet Owners Beware: Reptiles Can Cause Salmonella Infections

Nov. 10, 1999 (Atlanta) -- A 3-week-old boy is admitted to a hospital emergency department in Arizona with fever, vomiting, and bloody diarrhea. A 6-year-old boy develops bloody diarrhea, cramps, vomiting, and fever in Kansas; his 3-year-old brother also falls ill. In Wisconsin, a 5-month-old boy suddenly dies at home. These children are all victims of salmonella infections. The cause? Not contaminated food, but household pets. Reptiles -- such as iguanas, snakes, turtles, and lizards -- to be specific.

A CDC report released this week underscores the point that reptile-related salmonella infections continue to pose a substantial threat to human health. An estimated 3% of U.S. households keep a pet reptile. Between 1996 and 1998, the CDC received reports involving salmonella infections in people who had direct or indirect contact with reptiles from the health departments of about 16 states. The agency's statistics show that approximately 93,000 cases of salmonella infection a year are caused by pet reptile or amphibian contact -- that's 7% of all salmonella infection cases. A disproportionately large number of infections occur in children under five. Despite the dangers, few states have laws on the books to protect the public, and many pet owners remain unaware of the health risks.

"It is not a new topic: we have known for several years now that reptiles -- not just iguanas -- carry salmonella, and they shed it," study author and veterinarian Stephanie Wong tells WebMD.

"Salmonella, we believe, is a natural bacteria found in the gut of reptiles. You can test their feces and it'll be positive for salmonella one week and the next week it won't, and because of this 'intermittent shedding' we can't say that a reptile is salmonella-free." It is the reptile's natural state, not an illness, Wong says, and it isn't advisable to treat the salmonella infection. Additionally, treating the infection could lead to an antibiotic-resistant strain.

"What is new is the concern over children less than 5 years old. Our concern is that they seem to contract salmonellosis [infection with the bacteria salmonella] and they tend to get the more severe forms, including sepsis and meningitis. [In] many of these cases, the infants in fact were never in direct contact with the reptile but instead had indirect contact, such as a parent touching the iguana and then holding the child. Because of that concern, we included a new recommendation, which is that households with children less than 5 not have reptiles in the home." Wong is with Foodborne and Diarrheal Diseases branch of the CDC.

The CDC also recommends that:

  • Pet store owners, pediatricians, and veterinarians provide information to owners -- and potential owners -- of reptiles about the risk of salmonella infection
  • People at increased risk (children under 5 and people with immune system problems) avoid contact with reptiles and that pet reptiles be kept out of these at-risk households
  • Pet reptiles not be kept in child care centers, nor should they be allowed to roam freely throughout the home or living area
  • Pet reptiles be kept out of kitchen and other food preparation areas. Kitchen sinks should not be used to bathe reptiles, or wash their dishes, cages or aquariums. If the bathtub is used, it should be cleaned thoroughly and disinfected with bleach
  • People always wash their hands thoroughly with soap and water after handling reptiles and their cages

"Basic hand washing with warm water and soap after contact is actually protective," says Wong. "It a very simple recommendation but extremely important. But also try to decrease the animal's movement in house: the salmonella is primarily in the feces, but since a lot of species walk around in their feces, it will be on the reptile and you won't see it. Just keep in mind that whatever that reptile comes in contact with can therefore be contaminated by salmonella, which can survive in the environment for weeks," she says.

Wong says the best way to clean a contaminated surface is to use a bleach-based cleanser. "But try to avoid that contact from happening," she says. "And no matter what, wash your hands before touching your mouth or food or a baby."