Reptiles and Salmonella

Salmonella is a bacteria (or group of bacteria) that can cause illness in humans. The symptoms of Salmonella are usually mild and include diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and fever. Some infections, though, can be quite serious and severe cases can even lead to death. Young children, the elderly, and people with weak immune systems (persons with HIV/AIDS, people undergoing chemotherapy, transplant recipients, etc ...) are the most likely to have severe infections. Most cases of Salmonella (about 95% in the U.S.) result from eating contaminated food. Raw eggs and undercooked meat and poultry are common sources as are unwashed vegetables. Food can also become contaminated if someone infected with Salmonella handles it without washing his/her hands. Additionally, Salmonella can be passed in the feces of certain pets. Reptiles are quite likely to shed these bacteria in their feces and a growing number of Salmonella infections each year can be traced to pet reptiles. Most, if not all, reptiles carry Salmonella in their gut and occasionally shed them in their feces, yet the bacteria do not usually cause illness in reptiles. It is virtually impossible to eliminate Salmonella from your pet reptile. People can get Salmonella from reptiles by putting things in their mouth that have been in contact with reptile feces. Simply holding a reptile or being near a reptile will not cause a Salmonella infection, the bacteria must enter the body through a break in the skin or be ingested. Knowing that the risk exists and simple, common sense (see the CDC's recommendations) are the best defense against contracting reptile-associated salmonellosis.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has the following recommendations for preventing transmission of Salmonella from reptiles to humans:

  • Pet store owners, veterinarians, and pediatricians should provide information to owners and potential purchasers of reptiles about the risk for acquiring salmonellosis from reptiles.
  • Persons should always wash their hands thoroughly with soap and water after handling reptiles or reptile cages.
  • Persons at increased risk for infection or serious complications of salmonellosis (e.g., children aged less than 5 years and immunocompromised persons) should avoid contact with reptiles.
  • Pet reptiles should be kept out of households where children aged less than 5 years or immunocompromised persons live. Families expecting a new child should remove the pet reptile from the home before the infant arrives.
  • Pet reptiles should not be kept in child care centers.
  • Pet reptiles should not be allowed to roam freely throughout the home or living area.
  • Pet reptiles should be kept out of kitchens and other food-preparation areas to prevent contamination. Kitchen sinks should not be used to bathe reptiles or to wash their dishes, cages, or aquariums. If bathtubs are used for these purposes, they should be cleaned thoroughly and disinfected with bleach.

Green Iguana (Iguana iguana)

Further Reading:

Altman, R., J. C. Gorman, L. Bernhardt, and M. Goldfield. 1972. Turtle-associated Salmonellosis II. The relationship of pet turtles to salmonellosis in children in New Jersey. American Journal of Epidemiology 95(6):518-20.

CDC. 1995. Reptile-Associated Salmonellosis -Selected States, 1994-1995. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 44(17):347-50.

CDC. 1999. Reptile-Associated Salmonellosis -Selected States, 1996-1998. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 48(44):1009-13.

CDC. 2003. Reptile-Associated Salmonellosis -Selected States, 1998-2002.Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 52(49):1206-09.

Cohen M. L., M. Potter, R. Pollard, R. A. Feldman. 1980. Turtle-associated Salmonellosis in the United States: Effect of public health action, 1970 to 1976. JAMA 1980;243:1247-9.

Grier, J. W., M. S. Bjerke, and L. K. Nolan. 1993. Snakes and the Salmonella Situation. Bulletin of the Chicago Herpetological Society 28(3):53-9.

Hohmann, E. L. 2001. Nontyphoidal Salmonellosis. Clinical Infectious Diseases 32:263-9.

Kaufmann, A. F. and Z. L. Morrison. 1966. An Epidemiologic Study of Salmonellosis in Turtles. American Journal of Epidemiology 84(2):364-70.

Kaufmann, A. F., M. D. Fox, G. K. Morris, B. T. Wood, J. C. Feeley, and M. . Frix. 1972. Turtle-associated Salmonellosis III. The effects of environmental Salmonellae in commercial turtle breeding ponds. American Journal of Epidemiology 95(6):521-8.

Lamm, S. H. , A. Taylor Jr., E. J. Gangarosa, W. W. Anderson, W. Young, M. H. Clark, and A. R. Bruce. 1972. Turtle-associated Salmonellosis I. An estimation of the magnitude of the problem in the United States, 1970-1971. American Journal of Epidemiology 95(6):511-7.

Mead, P. S., L. Slutsker, V. Dietz, L. F. McCaig, J. S. Bresee, C. Shapiro, P. M. Griffin, and R. V. Tauxe. 1999. Food-related Illness and Death in the United States. Emerging Infectious Diseases 5(5):607-625.

Mermin, J., B. Hoar, and F. J. Angulo. 1997. Iguanas and Salmonella Marina Infection in Children: A reflection of the increasing incidence of reptile- associated Salmonellosis in the United States. Pediatrics 99(3):399-402.

The following websites also offer more information:

California Zoological Supply Salmonella Fact Sheet - This large reptile wholesaler supplies this information to pet stores to pass on to customers.

Dog Bite Law - This site has some startling dog bite statistics. Compare the health risks associated with keeping reptiles to the risks involved with keeping dogs.

Salmonellosis - A detailed CDC fact sheet.

Zoonoses: Animals Can Make You Sick - Another site that puts the health risks of keeping pet reptiles into perspective by looking at a whole host of diseases that people get from animals.