Salmonella is the name for a range of nasty little bacterial bugs that wreak havoc in the intestinal tract and can cause typhoid fever and a whole host of other illnesses that can make you feel really lousy. Some exotic animals domesticated as pets harbor salmonella.
While salmonella was once thought of as a disease only originating from undercooked or spoiled eggs or meat, it is now considered one of the potential pitfalls of owning a pet with shells, scales and long tails.Many reptiles and amphibians carry salmonella on their bodies; it's natural for them to have it. When the salmonella pathogen grows too large for an exotic pet's immune system to handle, it causes infection in the pet. Meanwhile, your pet doesn't have to be sick to pass the pathogen to you. It takes a lot less of the pathogen to get you sick than it does for a reptile; when your pet or a wild animal passes it on to you -- a being for whom salmonella is not a normal pathogen -- it can make you very sick. Salmonellosis is the infection caused by salmonella.
Certain kinds of salmonella are associated with certain reptiles. For example, the iguana carries the salmonella serotype S. marina, a relatively unusual type of salmonella. As the popularity of iguanas as pets rises, though, so do the incidences of salmonellosis caused by S. marina.
Scaly Critters: Exotic Reptile Pets
As snakes, turtles and lizards became more popular as exotic pets the incidence of infections caused by salmonella has risen dramatically. According to the CDC, over the course of a year in 2010 and 2011, 132 cases of human salmonella infection were reported in 18 states. Many of these cases came from the handling of small turtles. Little children are often given baby turtles as pets because they are considered safe and easy to care for. However, if a child who handles a turtle or other reptile does not immediately wash his hands afterward, he could become the next victim of salmonellosis. Professor Liam Donaldson, chief medical officer for the United Kingdom, said, "It is estimated that nine out of 10 reptiles carry salmonella, and people must take precautions if they own these exotic pets."
Not So Scaly Critters: Exotic Mammal Pets
Snakes, frogs, lizards, toads and turtles aren't all that can make you sick; some mammals can carry dangerous levels of salmonella. In September 2012, the CDC announced that 14 people across six states were sickened with a type of salmonella carried by hedgehogs. "Salmonella germs are shed in their droppings and can easily contaminate their bodies and anything in areas where these animals live and roam," cites the CDC announcement; it added, "Some ill persons specifically mentioned contact with African Pygmy hedgehogs." Regardless of what type of hedgehog you own, you should wash after handling the pet. Another mammal that carries salmonella is the sugar glider, a nocturnal marsupial from Australia and New Guinea. With huge eyes and ears like a fruit bat, sugar gliders are adorable. But they can put you at risk for salmonella infections.
Feathery Critters: Exotic Poultry Pets
It used to be a common Easter or spring tradition to give children baby chicks as pets. Though the practice has gone the way of the pay phone, some folks still raise chickens from chicks adulthood as pets. Chicks are carriers of a specific type of salmonella, S. montevideo. A May 2012 CDC study citing statistics from more than 40 states reported that more than 130 people, most of them young children, became sick after handling young chicks. The study specifically cited the S. montevideo strain as the culprit.
- Medical News Today: What is Salmonella? What Is Salmonella Infection?
- Centers for Disease Control: Notes from the Field: Outbreak of Salmonellosis Associated with Pet Turtle Exposures — United States, 2011
- BBC News: Salmonella risk from exotic pets
- School of Veterinary Medicine University of Wisconsin: Selected Zoonotic Agents of Gastroenteritis That Can Be Acquired From Dogs and Cats
- Exotic Pets Vet: Reptiles and Salmonella
- Centers for Disease Control: Reptiles, Amphibians, and Salmonella
- Centers for Disease Control: Multistate Outbreak of Human Salmonella Typhimurium Infections Linked to Hedgehogs
- Sugar Glider: Zoonosis
- PetWatch: Sugar Glider
- U.S News Health: They're Cute, But Baby Chicks Can Harbor Salmonella
turtle image by Canoneer from Fotolia.com
Michelle A. Rivera is the author of many books and articles. She attended the University of Missouri Animal Cruelty School and is certified with the Florida Animal Control Association. She is the executive director of her own nonprofit, Animals 101, Inc. Rivera is an animal-assisted therapist, humane educator, former shelter manager, rescue volunteer coordinator, dog trainer and veterinary technician.