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Reptile Corner - Salmonella

Salmonella Bacteria and Reptiles
by Teresa Bradley, DVM and Frederick L. Angulo DMV, PhD.

Most, if not all, reptiles carry Salmonella bacteria in their intestinal tract and intermittently or continuously shed these bacteria in their feces. Salmonella bacteria usually do not cause any illness in reptiles, but can cause serious illness in people.

Salmonella bacteria can be easily spread from reptiles to humans by ingestion of the bacteria. Humans may become infected when they place their hands or other objects, including food items that have been in contact with the stool of reptiles, in their mouths. For example, infants have become infected after drinking bottles of infant formula that became contaminated during preparation. Individuals who prepared the formula had not washed their hands after touching a reptile or because reptiles were allowed to walk on kitchen counters.

Unlike other pets, just petting the reptile can result in transmission of the bacteria because of the way reptiles are housed. Fecal material may be anywhere on the body of a reptile. Therefore, a person handling a reptile without washing their hands immediately afterwards could become infected with Salmonella if he or she then puts his or her hands in their mouth, eats, drinks or smokes.

Most Salmonellainfections in humans result in a mild self-limiting illness characterized by diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps. However, the infection can spread to the bloodstream, bone marrow, or the nervous system, leading to severe and sometimes fatal illness. Such severe infections are more likely to occur in infants and in individuals whose immune system is compromised (for instance, bone marrow transplant recipients, persons with diabetes mellitus, persons infected with the human immune deficiency virus, and chemotherapy patients).

Unfortunately, Salmonella bacteria cannot be eliminated from the intestinal tract of reptiles. Administration of antibiotics to eliminate these bacteria has been unsuccessful and may result in emergence of Salmonella bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. Attempts to raise or identify reptiles that do not carry Salmonella bacteria have also been unsuccessful; therefore, bacterial culture of stool samples in an attempt to identify reptiles that are not carrying Salmonella bacteria is not recommended.

Fortunately the spread of Salmonella bacteria from reptiles to humans can be easily prevented by using the following routine precautions:

  • Always wash your hands with hot, soapy water after handling reptiles, reptile cages and equipment, or the stool of reptiles.
  • Do not allow reptiles to have access to the kitchen, dining room or any other area in which food is prepared. Also, do not allow reptiles to have access to bathroom sinks and tubs or to any area where infants are bathed. Consider keeping your reptiles caged or limiting the parts if the house where reptiles are allowed to roam free. Always wash your hands after coming into contact with any area where reptiles are allowed to roam free.
  • Do not eat, drink, or smoke while handling reptiles, reptile cages, or reptile equipment. Do not kiss reptiles or share food or drink with them.
  • Do not use the kitchen sink, kitchen counters, bathroom sinks or bathtubs to bathe reptiles or to wash reptile cages, dishes or aquariums. Reptile owners may wish to purchase a plastic basin or tub in which to bathe or swim their reptiles. Waste water and fecal material should be disposed of in the toilet instead of the bathtub or household sink.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that children less than five years of age avoid contact with reptiles and that households with children less than five years of age not own reptiles. The Association of Reptilian and Amphibian Veterinarians encourages reptile owners with young children to discuss steps to minimize risks associated with owning reptiles with their reptile’s veterinarian and their physician. Children should be supervised when they are handling reptiles to ensure they do not place their hands or objects that a reptile has contacted in their mouths. Reptiles should not be kept in child care centers.
  • Immunocompromised persons should avoid contact with reptiles.
  • Follow instructions from your reptile’s veterinarian concerning proper diet and environment for your reptile. Healthy reptiles living in proper environments may be less likely to shed Salmonella bacteria, however to prevent transmission of Salmonella to humans, all reptiles should be handled as though they are shedding the bacteria.

Information in this handout is not meant to discourage reptile ownership. With a few exceptions (for example, infants or immune compromised individuals), most people have a low risk of acquiring salmonellosis from reptiles, but this risk can be reduced even further by following simple precautions. Reptiles can be safely kept as pets, but reptile owners should be aware of the methods for reducing their risk of acquiring Salmonella bacteria from their reptiles.

Handout distributed by: Association of Reptilian and Amphibian Veterinarians. P.O. Box 605, Chester Heights, PA 19017 www.arav.org  

This handout was developed by the Association of Reptilian and Amphibian Veterinarians in collaboration with the Center of Disease Control and Prevention and is intended for informational purposes only; please seek advice from your physician and your reptile’s veterinarian if questions or problem occur. 

 

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