Salmonellosis and Its Risk to Reptile Owners
© Veterinary Services
Department, Drs. Foster & Smith, Inc.
you ask the average lay person if there are any risks in owning a pet turtle or
other reptile, the one that is most commonly mentioned is Salmonella bacteria.
Most, if not all, reptiles carry Salmonella in their intestinal tract and intermittently
or continuously shed these bacteria in their feces. Studies have shown that 85%
of all turtles, 77% of lizards, and 92% of snakes carry one of the 500 serotypes
of Salmonella. Salmonella usually do not cause any illness in reptiles, but can
cause serious illness in people.|
Salmonella bacteria are easily spread from reptiles to humans. For Salmonella to spread from reptiles to humans, the bacteria must be ingested. This most often occurs when humans place their hands on the reptile or objects that have been in contact with the stool of reptiles; then they place their hands in their mouths, or on objects or food they put in their mouths, and can become infected. For example, infants have become infected after drinking from bottles of infant formula that became contaminated during preparation. Individuals who prepared the formula had not washed their hands after touching a reptile or reptiles were allowed to walk on kitchen counters. Simply touching or holding a reptile will not result in spread of bacteria unless something contaminated with reptile feces is placed in the mouth.
Most healthy humans come in contact with Salmonella and a whole host of disease-causing organisms on a daily basis, but because they have a healthy immune system and they come into contact with relatively small numbers of organisms, they do not contract the disease. Those humans who become infected with Salmonella usually have a mild, self-limiting illness characterized by diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps. However, the infection can spread to the bloodstream, bone marrow or nervous system, leading to severe, and sometimes fatal, illness. Such severe infections are more likely to occur in infants and in individuals whose immune systems are compromised (for instance, bone marrow transplant recipients, persons with diabetes mellitus, persons infected with the human immunodeficiency virus, and chemotherapy patients).
Unfortunately, Salmonella bacteria cannot be eliminated from the intestinal tract of reptiles. Administration of antibiotics to eliminate these bacteria has been unsuccessful and may result in emergence of Salmonella bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. Attempt to raise or identify reptiles that do not carry Salmonella bacteria have also been unsuccessful; therefore, bacterial culture of stool samples in an attempt to identify reptiles that are not carrying Salmonella bacteria is not recommended.
Fortunately, by following some good common hygiene practices and avoiding contact with the feces of these animals as much as possible, we can easily prevent the spread of Salmonella. These basic preventive recommendations include:
These recommendations are not meant to discourage reptile ownership. If these basic precautions and good common sense are observed, the risk of contracting Salmonella from a reptile is very low, with a few exceptions, such as infants or immunocompromised individuals. Reptiles can be safely kept as pets, but reptile owners should be aware of the methods for reducing their risk of acquiring Salmonella bacteria from their reptiles. Enjoy the reptile and remember that good hygienic practices are one of the best things you can do to protect yourself and your reptile from a whole host of infectious diseases.
and Further Reading
American Association of Reptile and Amphibian Veterinarians. Salmonella Bacteria and Reptiles: Client Educational Handout. http://www.arav.org/SalmonellaOwner.htm
Highfield, A.C. Keeping and Breeding Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles. Carapace Press. London; 1996.