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Last updated January 1, 2014

If You Touch A Turtle, Wash Your Hands!

Keep your turtle out of your mouth. And remember to wash your hands

Richmond Times Dispatch, Virginia, March 23, 2000


Reptiles such as turtles, snakes and lizards are becoming increasingly popu-lar as pets, but they harbor Salmonella bacteria that can make life miserable for humans. The bacteria cause salmonellosis, an infection of the human intestinal tract that usually manifests itself as diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever and sometimes vomiting. In rare cases, it can be life- threatening.

Even when owners try to keep their reptiles and cages clean, Salmonella can be on the animal, on the cage, or on the carpet that the pet crawled across while the owner was cleaning the cage, experts say. "Any place the reptile has crawled, he can leave a thin veneer of Salmonella behind," said Dr. Fred Angulo, a medical epidemiologist with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC recommends that reptiles not be kept in homes that have children younger than age 5. The animals also should not be kept in preschools and day-care centers, the CDC says. "Despite educational efforts, some reptile owners remain unaware that rep-tiles place them and their children at risk for salmonellosis," the agency said in a recent report.

Before you turn your iguana into a handbag, how-ever, consider: Lightning kills more people than reptile-related salmonello-sis. And about 90 percent of Salmonella infections are caused by improperly cooked food, including eggs and poultry. Other pets also pose risks. Chicks, ducklings and pet birds can spread Salmonella. Dogs and cats can bite and scratch. About 24,000 people a year get cat-scratch disease, an in-fection that can cause swelling and discomfort of the lymph nodes and sometimes fever. About 2,000 are hospitalized. In their waste, puppies and kittens can spread germs that sicken people, including Salmonella, Campylobacter, Giardia and Cryptosporidium.

The tip-off, however, is that these animals will typically be sick with diarrhea when they are spreading the germs. Reptiles spreading Salmonella can appear perfectly healthy. Dr. Diane Woolard, an assistant state epidemiologist with the Virginia Depart-ment of Health, concurred with the CDC that reptiles should not be kept in homes with small children. Beyond that, the risk of being around dogs, cats, reptiles and other pets is small if people remember to wash up and use good sense, she said.

"The benefits of pet ownership outweigh the risks," she said, "and I don't want people to be paranoid about their pets." Animals harbor various bacteria in their digestive tracts - people carry E. coli, for example. Reptiles typically carry Salmonella. They shed it in their waste.

Reptiles are responsible for about 93,000 Salmonella illnesses a year, or about 7 percent of the total, the CDC estimates. In its report, the CDC cited a handful of examples. In one, a 5- month-old Wisconsin girl died in 1998 of an infection apparently caused by the family's pet iguana. In another, a 6-year-old boy suffered bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramps, vomiting and fever in Kansas in 1997. His 3-year-old brother also had diarrhea. Doctors said they were infected with Salmonella, apparently from two pet corn snakes they handled often.

In Virginia, the number of reptile-related cases is unknown. "It doesn't happen much," said Woolard. Asked for examples, Woolard cited four cases from the mid-'90s. In one, an 8-month-old Amelia County girl and her father suffered fever and diarrhea that apparently were caused by the family's pet boa constrictor.

About 3 percent of U.S. house-holds keep reptiles, the CDC estimates. The CDC says Salmonella, from all sources, infects about 1.4 million people annually. That's a rough estimate, because most cases go unreported. People simply suffer diarrhea for a day or two, and no one pinpoints the cause.

The CDC estimates about 600 people die each year from salmonellosis, with about 40 of those deaths linked to reptiles. By comparison, lightning kills about 65 people a year, the flu kills about 20,000, and about 40,000 die in highway crashes.

In Chester-field County, 44-year-old Lee Meador shares his Monacan Hills home with 75 turtles. Daughters Jessica, 15, and Catherine, 11, love the reptiles, while wife Susan tolerates them," Meador said. Meador said he let his girls handle the turtles when they were young, hut he made sure they cleaned their hands. "They developed a habit of washing up. That was instilled in them at an early age," Meador said.

Meador also made sure his girls didn't put the turtles to their mouths. If children aren't supervised, he said, "They have a habit of trying to kiss their pets."

In 30 years, Meador said, he has twice suffered mild diarrhea that he attributes to his turtles. He probably allowed the tanks to get dirty and didn't wash properly, he said. "It was entirely my fault." Meador's pets include spotted turtles, snapping turtles, box turtles, painted turtles, mud turtles and stinkpots, among others.

Why all the turtles? Meador said he is attracted to their personalities--individuals within the same species can be shy, aggressive or personable-and their looks. "Some are cute. Some are horribly ugly. Some are prehistoric looking."

Meador took issue with the CDC's recommendation to keep reptiles away from small children. Avoiding infection, he said, "is just a matter of basic, normal hygiene."

At Rockwood Nature Center in Chesterfield, naturalist Judy Brown offered a different take. Brown runs summer programs in which she talks about snakes' role in nature while children hold docile na-tive serpents such as corn snakes and king snakes. Brown mentions Salmonella and makes sure the children wash their hands. But she also tries not to alarm the children or parents. She is not aware of one case of a reptile causing salmonellosis. "I just don't think it's a major problem" she said.

But Brown generally doesn't think people should keep reptiles as pets, out of concern for the animals. Many wild populations are in decline, and she op-poses catching wild reptiles for pets. It's OK for a budding young biologist to keep a reptile, but many people don't understand the cold-blooded ani-mals' special needs, Brown said. Too often, she said, the creatures are ill-treated or abandoned.

Despite the risks that humans and reptiles pose to each other, the two seem destined to mingle. Brown said her snake program is the most popular at the nature center, which holds at least one, and sometimes three, one-hour sessions each summer day. "Even people who don't like snakes are fascinated," Brown said. "They're drawn to them."


Reptiles are just one cause of Salmonella problems. Here is more informa-tion about the disease and its sources:

What is salmonellosis?
A disease caused by Salmonella bacteria. It usually affects the intestinal tract and oc-casionally the bloodstream. Salmonella bacteria can cause food- poisoning outbreaks.

Where are Salmonella found?
The bacteria often contaminate raw meats, including chicken, eggs and unpasteurized milk and cheese products. These bacteria are also found in the feces of infected persons or infected pets such as reptiles, chicks, dogs and cats.

How are Salmonella bacteria spread?
By eating contaminated food (particularly undercooked eggs and poultry) or drinking contaminated water. Infected persons can spread the bacteria by not washing their hands after going to the bathroom and then handling food that other people eat. Another way to get this disease is by having direct contact with feces from an infected person or animal and then transferring the bacteria to the mouth from the hands.

What are the symptoms of salmonellosis?
The most common ones are diarrhea, fever, abdominal pain, headache and occasionally vomiting. Blood infections can be quite serious, particularly in the very young or elderly.

How soon after exposure do symptoms appear?
One to three days.

How long can an infected person carry the Salmonella bacteria?
Usually, several days to several weeks after illness. Some people carry the bacteria for a year or more.

What is the treatment for salmonellosis?
Most people recover on their own. Persons with diarrhea should drink plenty of fluids.

Source: Virginia Department of Health Protection


Here are ways to help prevent the transmission of Salmonella from pet reptiles to people:

Pet store owners, veterinarians and pediatricians should inform owners and potential buyers of reptiles about the risk of infection.

Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after handling reptiles or their cages.

Reptiles should not be kept in homes inhabited by children younger than age 5 or by people with immune system disorders.

Reptiles should not be allowed to roam freely thtoughout the home.

Don't use kitchen sinks to bathe reptiles or to wash their dishes or cages.

Other ways to prevent salmonellosis:

Treat raw poultry, beef and pork as if they were contaminated, and handle them accordingly.

Refrigerate foods promptly.

Wash cutting boards and counters immediately after use.

Avoid eating raw or undercooked poultry arid meats.

Avoid eating raw eggs, and thoroughly cook all foods made with raw eggs.

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Virginia Department of Health
Reprinted from HerpNews.

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