Salmonella Infection Risks and Reptile Owners

By Tracy Scannell, Gulf Coast Turtle and Tortoise Society

The health risks associated with the bacterium Salmonella and raw chicken and poultry products have been well publicized. Supermarkets are now placing advisory stickers on chicken detailing the preparation of the meat to minimize the risk of infection with these sometimes-deadly bacteria. Few parents would allow their children to eat raw eggs or put their hands in their mouths after handling raw chicken, but how many parents are aware that their child’s pet turtle (or any reptile for that matter) is capable of transmitting dangerous Salmonella bacteria just as readily?

Salmonella is a bacterium widely distributed in nature. It may be found in the intestinal tract of many species including birds and reptiles, which may harbor the bacteria without sign of disease. When humans are infected, serious, often life-threatening symptoms may result, including severe bloody diarrhea, septicemia and spontaneous abortion. Many strains of Salmonella bacteria are resistant to most antibiotics and lengthy treatment is required to clear the infection.

With increasing popularity of reptiles as pets, the instances of reptile-associated salmonellosis are also on the rise. In 1974, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) recognized the danger of Salmonella infection from the millions of baby red ear sliders that were popular pets. The ban on turtles with a carapace length of less than four inches helped educate the public about the dangers of Salmonella infection by water turtles, but did not extend to other reptiles, since the risks were not recognized and reptile ownership was not popular. Now, with the increase in ownership of reptiles, the problem of reptile-related Salmonella infection is evident. No laws are in place requiring pet stores to inform their clientele about reptile-associated salmonellosis, but the CDC and the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council have an educational program in place including materials illustrating the dangers of Salmonella infection from reptiles.

The CDC advisories are categorized in two parts: the first is prevention, the second informs the public about transmission and susceptibility of people to Salmonella infection.

The following outlines how to avoid becoming infected or acting as a carrier.

  • After handling any reptile, be sure to wash hands with soap and water for at least 30 seconds.
  • Disinfectant lotion should be used if reptiles are handled in locations where hand-washing facilities are absent.
  • Avoid touching your face, mouth or food after handling reptiles until your hand have been thoroughly washed.
  • Keep reptiles out of kitchens & away from areas where food is prepared, stored or served.
  • Do not use kitchen sinks to clean reptile accessories or cages.
  • Do not touch food or utensils after handling reptiles or accessories.
  • Keep reptile enclosures as clean as possible using Novalsan or disinfectants (rinse thoroughly afterwards).
  • Do not handle reptiles or caging materials with open cuts or sores on one’s hands.
  • Do not use bathtubs or shower stalls for cleaning enclosures/accessories unless disinfected with bleach afterward.
  • Water turtles eat and defecate in water. Filtration of water alone will not prevent bacterial contamination. Complete water changes and disinfection of enclosure and water/food dishes is essential.
  • The CDC advises against unsupervised handling of reptiles by children under the age of 12.
  • Reptiles should not be kept in facilities where toddlers and preschoolers are cared for.
  • Reptiles should be discouraged in classrooms unless appropriate hand washing facilities and supervision is present.

    In addition to using preventative measures to avoid Salmonella infection, the CDC recognizes certain groups of people who are at risk for contracting reptile-associated salmonellosis. These include:

  • Infants and children up to 5 years of age.
  • Anyone with HIV/AIDS or other immuno-deficient disorders.
  • Anyone who has had transplant surgery or is taking anti-rejection drugs.
  • Anyone who is on drug therapy which alters or suppresses the immune function including steroids, chemotherapy and biological response modifiers.
  • Anyone diagnosed with cancer or receiving radiation treatment.
  • Women who are pregnant or nursing to avoid risk to the baby.
  • Elderly, frail or people with poor nutritional status.

    If you keep reptiles for pets or are considering one, keep the following points in mind:

  • A high percentage of reptiles carry Salmonella in their intestinal tract without being sick. 90% of Salmonella infections are from fecal contamination.
  • Most cases of reptile-associated salmonellosis are in kids under 12. Adults have a higher resistance to infection.
  • Reptiles are easily infected through contact with other reptiles. The ranching operations for captive born and holding pens for wild caught reptiles are conducive to cross-infection.

    Though Salmonella is found in reptiles that are apparently in good health, stress and poor nutrition may result in a situation where large numbers of Salmonella are present in the animal’s digestive tract. The reptile’s general health may decline. It will stop eating, have watery stools and become lethargic. The infection may also cause the reptile to be more susceptible to infection with harmful parasites. Any newly acquired reptile should be isolated from other animals and ideally checked for health by a veterinarian who is familiar with treating reptiles. With proper precautions and husbandry, reptiles can be unique and interesting captives.

    See the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) page on Salmonella and turtles:
    http://www.fda.gov/consumer/updates/turtles042307.html

    See the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) page on Salmonella and turtles:
    http://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/spotlight_an_turtles.htm

    Much More On Salmonella, Humans & Turtles

    Copyright (c) 2004 Gulf Coast Turtle and Tortoise Society
    Permission is granted to copy for non-profit use with proper credit given. For any other use you must obtain permission.

    Gulf Coast Turtle and Tortoise Society
    1227 Whitestone Lane
    Houston, TX 77073
    Email us for quickest response:
    info-L@gctts.org

    http://www.gctts.org