Salmonella and Reptiles

The Problem and Its Prevention

In its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report of Dec. 12, 2003, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a new report on reptile associated Salmonellosis (infection with Salmonella bacteria). Salmonellosis is serious and potentially fatal, especially in young children or anyone with a weakened immune system. The CDC estimates that 74,000 cases of Salmonellosis per year are associated with exposure to reptiles or amphibians (directly or indirectly), which makes this a significant public health concern.

The CDC report also notes that children are at greatest risk from reptile associated Salmonellosis, and that many reptile and amphibian owners are still not aware of the risks.

This report is an update of a previous one, and notes that that amphibians have also been implicated in outbreaks of Salmonella, so salamanders, newts, and frogs should treated as carriers along with all reptiles.

The CDC report recommends that reptiles or amphibians should not be kept in homes with children younger than 5, or with anyone who is immunocompromised for any reason. Likewise, children under 5 and immunocompromised people should avoid contact (direct or indirect) with reptiles or amphibians, and child care centers should not house these animals. Knowing the risks, these recommendations should be taken seriously.

Background on Salmonella and Reptiles
Salmonella infections can come from a number of sources.

The most common source of Salmonella infection is improperly handled food. Salmonella bacteria can be harbored in the gastrointestinal tracts of many species of animal, including poultry, cattle, and pigs, presenting a risk of contamination of meat and eggs during processing. Salmonella can also be carried by pets (including cats and dogs), but especially reptiles and amphibians.

As high as 90% of reptiles are natural carriers of Salmonella bacteria, harboring strains specific to reptiles without any symptoms of disease in the reptile. While it is true that many pets can carry Salmonella, the problem with reptiles (and apparently amphibians) is that they carry Salmonella with such high frequency. It is prudent to assume that all reptiles and amphibians can be a potential source of Salmonella.

The problem of reptile associated Salmonellosis is not a new one, especially in children. A rash Salmonella infections that coincided with a surge in popularity of pet turtles prompted the Food and Drug Administration to ban the distribution of turtles smaller than four inches in length in 1975 in the United States. This seemed to be successful in reducing the incidence of reptile-associated Salmonellosis quite dramatically, but the incidence has increased again in recent years, probably as a result of the increased popularity and availability of a variety of reptiles and amphibians as pets.

It is important to note that Salmonella can be transmitted by direct contact (e.g. handling a reptile) or indirectly (e.g. touching surfaces contaminated with reptile feces, reptile equipment washed in the kitchen leading to contamination of food preparation areas).

Salmonella Infections in People
Salmonella predominantly causes gastroenteritis in humans (nausea, cramps, diarrhea), which is usually not serious in healthy adults. Children, the elderly, and immunocompromised people are susceptible to more serious infections including complications such as meningitis.

As with any risk from a pet (exotic or otherwise) education is the key to prevention. Some important points on prevention of reptile and amphibian associated Salmonellosis:

  • All reptile and amphibian owners should be aware of the potential for Salmonella transmission from their pets. It is the responsibility of the seller (e.g. pet store) as well as health care providers and veterinarians to inform owners of reptiles or amphibians of the risks posed from Salmonella, and its prevention.
  • Reptiles or amphibians should not be kept in homes with children younger than 5, or with anyone who is immunocompromised for any reason.
  • Children under 5 and immunocompromised people should avoid contact (direct or indirect) with reptiles or amphibians.
  • Hands should be thoroughly washed with soap and water each time a reptile or amphibian (or it's equipment) is handled.
  • Reptiles or amphibians should not be allowed free roam of living areas or in the kitchen.
  • Reptile and amphibian cages and equipment should not be cleaned in the kitchen. Sinks or tubs used for cleaning equipment or bathing reptiles should be disinfected with a bleach solution afterwards.
  • Day care centers, preschools, etc. should not house reptiles or amphibians.

References and Recommended reading: