Reptiles and amphibians can carry Salmonella bacteria, but that doesn’t mean that they do not make good pets. It simply means that pet owners need to be sure that they are informed about the best way to prevent infections and that if there are young children in the household, it is critical to teach them simple steps to take as well. Most of the infections that occur are in young children, so all children should be supervised at all times when handling the family turtle or lizard, etc. Adults in the household should be responsible for the cleaning of the pet’s enclosure and, again, should always be around when a child is handling any reptile or amphibian. In fact, I do not recommend any child less than 5 years old handling them at all since the child’s immune system is not fully developed and they are in the age-range most likely to put themselves in harm’s way without knowing it by wanting to give their pet a kiss, etc. Anyone with a weakened immune system, not just children, are at a higher risk for infection and should be very cautious when handling any reptiles or amphibians. Not only is it important to know how to protect yourself, it is also important to know what signs to watch for in people who have been infected so that you can get to your physician right away. Signs in people include diarrhea, stomach cramps, and fever.
There are laws in place to try to eliminate potential risks to people from Salmonella and also protect reptiles and amphibians from being transported and sold at too young of an age, but many of these laws are not enforced. For example, it has been illegal since 1975 to sell a turtle less than 4 inches in size, but how many pet stores have you been to and seen these little guys being sold? When a turtle is that small, it fits easily into a child’s mouth and so it puts kids at increased risk, but there is also a very high likelihood of that turtle getting serious, often fatal, diseases at that size. It is also illegal to sell live animals at flea markets, but that hasn’t seemed to stop it from happening and the pets that are sold at flea markets are out there, exposed to the elements, which can make them very sick and are often kept in poor conditions and end up getting very sick. Just another reason I recommend going through a rescue organizations or recommended source when looking to find the perfect fit for your family. Elgin Veterinary Hospital is happy to sit down with you and your family to help you make the best decision about your next addition or to help make sure that we can keep everyone happy and healthy!
Again, just because reptiles and amphibians can be carriers of disease, doesn’t mean they don’t make good pets or that you need to get rid of your beloved pet. I recommend an exam after any new addition to your household and bi-annual exams for life for all species, but especially exotics since they hide illness well and there is so much bad information out there. I want to be sure that you have all the information you need to provide the best care for your pet and understand the steps you need to take to be sure that you and your family are safe from any potential infections or parasites that can be passed from animals to people.
For current or future owners of reptiles and/or amphibians, these are some very simple steps that you can take to reduce your risk of Salmonella infection:
• Always wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after touching or handling any amphibian or reptile, its housing, or anything (including food) that has come in contact with a reptile or amphibian or its feces. Be sure to wash all surfaces of your hands, especially under fingernails, and to wash your hands long enough to sing “Happy Birthday” twice 🙂
• Reptile and amphibians should not be kept in children’s bedrooms or in child-care centers. The temptation to get your pet out to play just for a second or to give it a good-night hug/kiss is too great and so we want to be sure that children do not have the opportunity to have contact with their pet without parental supervision.
• Do not allow amphibians or reptiles to roam freely throughout your house. This makes it impossible to keep your home sanitized against disease. It is also not a good idea to have them near the kitchen or any food or drink preparation area.
• For many species, it is vital that they be soaked regularly. However, do not use your kitchen sink and it is best not to use your bathtub either. If you use a bathtub for this purpose, it should be thoroughly cleaned and bleached (make sure that the bleach has not expired and that it is diluted at least 1:32 with water so that it is effective in killing any bacteria that may remain on the surface). It is best to have a designated container just for the purpose of soaking your pet – rubber-maid containers work great for this so recycle that sweater container with a broken lid or buy a new container at the store for your pet if you don’t have one at home.
• Only immune-competent adults should clean the pet’s enclosure and should follow these guidelines:
o Clean your pet’s enclosure at least once a week and always wear gloves when cleaning. Also, never clean the enclosure with your pet inside – this can lead to death in your pet.
o It is best to clean the enclosure outside of the house in an area that is not frequently accessed by children, elderly or immunocompromised people and is not close to any gardens or water sources. However, when you are outside cleaning the enclosure do not place your pet in a container outside in the sun – this can easily lead to a fatal heat-stroke.
o If you must clean the enclosure inside the house, be sure it is away from the kitchen or any surfaces that you place food, drinks, and snacks.
o After cleaning the enclosure, remove and discard the gloves and thoroughly wash your hands with warm water and lots of soap. The amount of time that the soap is in contact with your hands is the most important thing, so be sure to sing your heart out!
I adore reptiles and amphibians which is why I went back to school after graduating from veterinary school just to study more about them. I think they make wonderful pets, but it is important to keep both you and your pet safe. I hope this articles helps clear up some of the worries people may have and keeps both you and these amazing creatures happy and healthy 🙂