Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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An Ounce of Prevention for Reptile Keepers


Pet Column for the week of August 7, 2000


Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
By Carrie Gustavson
Information Specialist

Dinosaurs may be extinct, but their huge popularity in movies, books, and museums has
brought a resurgence of interest in their modern-day relatives. Today, reptile pets are found
in about 3 percent of U.S. households.

A well-cared-for reptile can make an intriguing addition to most families as long as health
precautions are in place. However, reptiles are carriers of Salmonella, a bacterium that
causes illness in people. Recent years have seen a high number of cases in which
Salmonella bacteria were transmitted from reptiles to people.

For this reason, the Illinois State Legislature recently passed a law, to take effect January
2001, that will require pet shops to provide anyone who purchases a reptile with
information about the risks of Salmonella and about safe handling practices.

"Salmonella bacteria are normally found in the gut of reptiles," say Dr. Kenneth Welle, a
veterinarian specializing in exotic animals in private practice and at the University of Illinois
Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana. "It is the reptile's natural state and not an illness.
People should assume that all reptiles are salmonella carriers. It isn't advisable to treat the
salmonella for many reasons, mainly that treating carrier animals can lead to antibiotic
resistance."

Salmonellosis is an infection with Salmonella bacteria that can cause diarrhea, fever, and
cramps in people. Most people recover without treatment, but it can be severe enough to
require hospitalization. The infection can spread from the intestines to the blood stream and
other organs and can cause death without medical treatment. The elderly, infants, and those
with impaired immune systems are most likely to have severe illness. Salmonella is most
commonly spread through improperly prepared foods and raw or undercooked meat,
chicken, or eggs.

Dr. Welle believes that reptiles can be safe animals to keep in the home as long as the
proper precautions are taken. "If you are pregnant, you may want to have someone else
take care of the reptile," says Dr. Welle. "If you have young kids, it may be difficult to
control their access to a reptile. Keeping a reptile in an aquarium that a child can get to is a
bad idea, unless there is always adult supervision."

Also try to decrease the animal's movement in the house. "Allowing a reptile to roam in the
home creates a dangerous environment for the animal and is dangerous for humans who live
there. A reptile contaminates everything it walks on -- kitchen counters, carpets, floors,"
says Dr. Welle. "Take the same precautions you would with a piece of raw chicken. After
handling either one, washing hands with soap and water is very important."

You can use a bleach-based cleanser to clean a contaminated surface, but it's better to
prevent contact in the first place. After handling your reptile or its cage, always thoroughly
wash your hands with soap and water before touching your mouth, food, or a baby. Never
nuzzle or kiss your pet reptile.

These recommendations were issued by the Centers for Disease Control:

Pet store owners, veterinarians, and pediatricians should provide information
to owners and potential purchasers of reptiles about the risk of acquiring
salmonellosis from reptiles.

Persons should always wash their hands thoroughly with soap and water
after handling reptiles or reptile cages.

Persons at increased risk for infection or serious complication of
salmonellosis (e.g., children aged less than 5 years old and
immunocompromised persons) should avoid contact with reptiles.

Pet reptiles should be kept out of households where children less than five
years old or immunocompromised persons live. Families expecting a new child
should remove the pet reptile from the home before the infant arrives.

Pet reptiles should not be kept in childcare centers.

Pet reptiles should not be allowed to roam freely around the home or living
area.

Pet reptiles should be kept out of kitchens and other food-preparation areas
to prevent contamination. Kitchen sinks should not be used to bathe reptiles
or to wash their dishes, cages or aquariums. If bathtubs are used for these
purposes, they should be cleaned thoroughly and disinfected with bleach.

For more information about how to safely keep reptiles as pets, contact your local exotic
animal veterinarian.