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
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."
are Salmonella found?
are Salmonella bacteria spread?
are the symptoms of salmonellosis?
soon after exposure do symptoms appear?
long can an infected person carry the Salmonella bacteria?
is the treatment for salmonellosis?
Source: Virginia Department of Health Protection
Other ways to prevent salmonellosis:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Virginia Department of Health
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