What is Salmonella
and what can it do to a person?
is a bacteria and when it infects humans, it has a broad spectrum of diseases,
ranging from no symptoms at all, to -- rarely -- death. Most people who
get Salmonella infection, have a bad case of diarrhea, fever,
and abdominal cramping for about a week.
How many people
actually get Salmonella?
We estimate that between
two to four million people in the United States get Salmonella
infection each year. The majority of those infections are due to contaminated
beef, poultry or egg products. About 50 thousand of those infections a
year are thought to be from contact with reptiles.
Of that fifty thousand,
how many people actually make the connection? That it came from their
If you could break that
down into a percentage what percentage of cases would you say are related
Probably two to five
How does the threat of
Salmonella from a reptile differ from the threat of Salmonella
from chicken or a piece of meat?
infections from reptiles are much more likely to affect infants. And infants
are much more likely to have complications from their Salmonella
infection such as sepsis or meningitis, an inflammation of the covering
of the brain.
Why is it more likely
to affect infants?
We don't know exactly.
It may have something to do with the fact that they have a weaker immune
How is just by bringing
a reptile into my house more of a threat to my child than a piece of uncooked
Households with infants,
or people with weak immune systems, should not own pet reptiles. Reptiles
carry Salmonella in their stool, and they get covered with
Salmonella on their bodies. If they are allowed to walk,
slither, or hop around the house, they can spread Salmonella
which can survive under those circumstances for several weeks. Sometime
during another day, someone in the household could touch an area that
had some Salmonella on it and then put their finger in the
baby's mouth or cook some food or prepare a bottle for the infant. All
those circumstances can potentially infect the child with Salmonella
that ultimately came from the pet reptile. In most cases of reptile-related
Salmonella infections that have occurred in infants, the
infants never touched the reptile. That is why we need to keep pet reptiles
out of homes where infants live.
How many people actually
die from Salmonella each year?
Approximately five hundred
people in the United States each year.
What percentage of those
are related to reptile-related Salmonella?
We think between one
and four percent.
How many actual cases
have you documented of people dying from Salmonella related
In recent years it's
been quite few. But we don't document all cases of Salmonella
infection. There are approximately four thousand reported cases each year,
but we estimate between two and four million actually occur.
How many iguanas actually
Studies looking at pet
reptiles, have shown that between sixty and ninety percent of reptiles
carry Salmonella. It does not differ whether the reptile
is from the wild or from a zoo and it does not differ whether the reptile
is a turtle, an iguana or a snake. Reptiles carry Salmonella.
When we were in Central
America, we had farmers telling us that their iguanas are checked regularly
and there is no sign of Salmonella. We have pet shop owners
telling us that their reptiles do not carry Salmonella.
Are they telling the truth?
There are several reasons
why an iguana farmer might not be detecting Salmonella among
his pet iguanas. He is either not handling the stool samples correctly
before culturing them, or the laboratory may not culture Salmonella
well, or he's not telling you the truth.
So how can a pet shop
owner or a farmer who raises iguanas tell me that they have no Salmonella?
The important point to
be made for reptile owners is that they should assume that their reptile
has Salmonella and that they can enjoy their pet and reduce
the risk of infection by following certain recommendations. Those recommendations
are: to keep pet reptiles out of homes where children under one year of
age, or people with weak immune systems live -- such as people with AIDS
or people on chemotherapy drugs; wash their hands after touching the pet
and keep the reptile out of the kitchen; do not let the reptile roam freely
throughout the house; and although they can be affectionate to their reptile,
do not to kiss or nuzzle it.
Let me tell you what
we saw when we went to pet stores. We had people telling us iguanas don't
carry diseases that humans can catch. They downplayed the chance of someone
getting Salmonella from a reptile. How would you characterize
the information that people are actually getting at these pet stores?
When we visited pet stores,
we found that the level of knowledge about Salmonella from
reptiles was actually fairly high. But the amount of education that they
were providing their customers was not.
As long as people are
getting misinformation or not enough information, at what sort of risk
are we putting people who buy these reptiles?
For most of the people
who have a pet reptile, the risk is a bout of diarrheal illness. For some,
it's the risk of a serious infection, especially if there are infants
in the home.
But pet store owners,
farmers are telling us that they are safe. What are they doing by giving
us this wrong information? Are they putting people at risk unnecessarily?
In the 1970s, there were
about 280 thousand cases of Salmonella related to pet turtles.
At that time, the Food and Drug Administration banned the importation
and interstate sales of turtles with shell eggs under four inches. That
made a dramatic reduction in the number of cases of Salmonella
as related to pet turtles. Since that time, there has not been a lot of
information out in either the pet store world or among the public about
the risks of owning a pet reptile. I think it's time for an educational
campaign to occur.
Families who have had
a child, or someone in their family who comes down with Salmonella
from their pet reptile blame the pet stores. They blame the pet industry
for not giving this information to them. People in the industry however,
say some responsibility has to lie with the parent. Who's at fault here?
I'm not sure the question
is "who is at fault," but "what we can do?" Right
now, there is a lot we can do to further educate pet stores, veterinarians,
physicians, and reptile owners about how they can protect themselves from
getting Salmonella infection from their pet reptiles.
When I go into
a pet store, is it realistic for me to expect the clerk or even the shop
owner to fully understand the threat of Salmonella?
I don't think so. I think
what we can expect from pet stores and the personnel working in the pet
stores is that they can provide some information about the risks of reptiles
spreading Salmonella to their owners. The educational campaign
that we are conducting with state health departments and the pet industry,
tries to take away the burden of education from the personnel in the pet
stores and put that in the hands of posters and information sheets that
can be provided to every customer who is considering purchasing a reptile.
Edited for content