Salmonella and Reptiles

Child with Leopard Gecko
Child with Leopard Gecko. Getty Images/Blend Images-Kidstock

Salmonella infections in people can come from a number of sources but the most common source is improperly handled food. Salmonella bacteria can be harbored in the gastrointestinal tracts of many species of animals, including poultry, cattle, and pigs, presenting a risk of contamination of meat and eggs during processing. But Salmonella can also be carried by pets, including cats, dogs, hedgehogs, reptiles and amphibians. As high as 90% of reptiles are natural carriers of Salmonella bacteria harboring strains that are specific to them and they show no signs of illness. The problem with reptiles and amphibians, when compared to other types of pets that are Salmonella carriers, is that they carry the bacteria with such high frequency. Therefore, it is prudent to assume that all reptiles and amphibians can be a potential source of Salmonella.

The Risk of Salmonella Infections to People

The problem of reptile associated Salmonellosis is not a new one, especially in children. In 1975, a rash of 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 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. It is thought this rise in Salmonella infections may be a result of the increased popularity and availability of a variety of reptiles and amphibians as pets.

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 infections of people with Salmonella bacteria called Salmonellosis. Salmonellosis is serious and potentially fatal in people, 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, both directly or indirectly, which makes this a significant public health concern. The CDC report also notes that children are at the greatest risk from reptile associated Salmonellosis and that many reptile and amphibian owners are not aware of the risks. Previous and subsequent reports have added that Salmonella can be harbored by amphibians and other pets as well.

Symptoms of a Salmonella Infection in People

Salmonella predominantly causes gastroenteritis in humans so symptoms include nausea, cramps, and diarrhea. It is not usually a serious problem in healthy adults. Children, the elderly, and immunocompromised people on the other hand, are susceptible to more serious infections including complications such as meningitis.

Preventing Salmonella Infections in People

  • The CDC recommends that reptiles or amphibians should not be kept in homes with children younger than five years of age or with anyone who is immunocompromised for any reason.
  • Children under five years of age and immunocompromised people should avoid contact, either direct or indirect, with reptiles and amphibians since Salmonellosis can be transmitted in both ways.
  • Educate yourself about Salmonella if you are looking to get, or already have a pet, especially if it is a reptile or amphibian. 
  • Hands should be thoroughly washed with soap and water each time a reptile or amphibian is handled.
  • Reptiles and amphibians should not be allowed to roam free in 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 and bathing reptiles should be disinfected with a bleach solution afterwards.
  • Day care centers, preschools, etc. should not house reptiles or amphibians.

Can Kids Have Pet Reptiles if Salmonella is a Risk?

Healthy children are typically more susceptible to Salmonella infections partly because they are less likely to wash their hands on a regular basis. After handling a pet, especially a small one like a reptile or amphibian, kids may not wash their hands and instead put their hands in their mouth. Plenty of children have beginner reptiles as pets but they should always be supervised when handling them, feeding them, or touching the inside of their enclosure and their hands should be washed when they are done.

Children also often put things in their mouths that they shouldn't, including small reptiles. If your child is known to do things like this, they probably shouldn't be allowed access to a reptile that is small enough to fit in their mouth.

Edited by Adrienne Kruzer, RVT