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Last updated January 1, 2014

Reptile-Related Salmonellosis

©1996 Shannan K. Meehan, JAVMA Vol 209, No 3, August 1996, p. 531


There is a growing trend in the United States toward reptile ownership. In some parts of the country, up to three percent of households own reptiles, according to Dr. Frederick J. Angulo of the CDC.

Increased ownership has led to a marked increase in the number of cases of reptile-associated salmonellosis reported to the CDC. The agency is currently trying to determine the extent of the problem, but cases of reptile-associated salmonellosis are estimated at 50,000 annually.

Because of this, the CDC, Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, and state health departments are developing a consumer education program aimed at reptile owners, warning of the dangers of reptile-associated salmonellosis. Symptoms include fever, diarrhea, vomiting, and cramps lasting one to two days. In infants and the elderly, salmonellosis can be a serious infection causing hospitalization, dehydration, and [in] extreme cases, death.

In the 1970s, turtles were popular pets, but a ban on all turtles less than four inches in length as well as on the interstate shipment of turtles proved effective in educating the public of the inherent dangers of Salmonella by the turtles. The ban affected only turtles because, at that time, it wasn't recognized that other reptiles were a risk, and ownership of reptiles was not very popular, according to Dr. Angulo. "Since then, there's been increasing ownership of reptiles, and the problem of reptile-related salmonellosis has become increasingly evident," Dr. Angulo said.

The emphasis at the CDC regarding salmonellosis is now on education. Research has determined that all reptiles carry Salmonella because the bacteria are part of their normal flora.

The current education program, targeted at pet-store clientele, includes posters and brochures. The posters, available since the end of July, and brochures, set for distribution by the end of 1996, carry two messages: "The first message is the need for reptile owners to wash their hands after touching the reptile," Dr. Angulo said.

The second message advises consumers that the CDC has determined the risk of contact with reptiles, and subsequent transmission of salmonellosis, is too great for families with children under a year old and families with infants. The agency strongly advises families with infants not to own reptiles, according to Dr. Angulo.

The CDC has tried to determine what knowledge practitioners have about Salmonella and reptiles. "We did a survey of veterinarians in California and asked them what they knew about salmonellosis. We were pleased to find that most veterinarians are well aware that turtles are a possible source of the illness of salmonellosis."

"But we were disappointed to find out that many veterinarians were not aware that other reptiles, especially snakes, could be a cause of illness. [The CDC] firmly believes that all types of reptiles--turtles, lizards, snakes--carry Salmonella and are a possible source of infection for human beings."

Practitioners need to be aware of the potential risks of salmonellosis, so they can protect themselves, their staff, and their clients. Dr. Angulo said practices should ensure that adequate hand washing facilities exist and that staff members should be encouraged to wash their hands, especially after handling reptiles. Practitioners also play an important role in educating the pet-owning public. "Although veterinarians don't typically see a lot of reptile-owning clients, some education about the need for hand washing after handling reptiles would be very useful."

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