OMG, That Reptile’s Got Salmonella!

Patty Khuly, DVM
Updated: March 31, 2016
Published: June 01, 2011
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Last reviewed on January 5, 2016

Much has been made of the ability of our animal species to spread Salmonella willy nilly. As veterinarians, we’re trained to tell you, our pet-owning clients, lots about how your pets might potentially give you the crud. But how careful do you really need to be?

It’s undeniably true: reptiles can carry about 200 different types of Salmonella, all of which can give you salmonellosis. Here’s an excerpt from this month’s NAVC Clinician’s Brief on the subject:

Approximately 40,000 confirmed cases of human salmonellosis are reported annually in the U.S. and result in nearly 400 deaths. Pet reptiles are a known source of Salmonella species exposure to humans. Salmonella detection and elimination in reptiles, however, does not seem to be a viable solution for preventing salmonellosis in humans because identifying Salmonella species from infected reptiles is not precise … numerous efforts have been made to prevent Salmonella shedding in reptiles without success. Even when the best efforts are employed to eliminate Salmonella from [infected] reptiles, there remains a constant risk for environmental exposure.

Yes, while reptiles often carry Salmonella around in their guts, knowing whether they’re liable to infect you with it or not isn’t exactly easy. So you can’t know whether that turtle you bought at the pet store has it or not before taking it home to your kids. And if it does, there’s no way to be 100 percent safe from its ability to shed the bacteria in its feces.

That’s because Salmonella bacteria have a way of hiding so that they’re not always identifiable when you test any given animal. But there is a silver lining, again thanks to the Clinician’s Brief:

The good news is that simply touching or holding a reptile will not result in spread of Salmonella. Exposure occurs when something that has become contaminated with fecal material while handling the reptile (eg, hands, fingers, food items) is placed in the mouth or ingested.

Which is why we veterinarians offer our clients these basic guidelines to prevent exposure:

  1. Washing hands after handling reptiles
  2. Not allowing reptiles to roam free in such areas as the kitchen and bathroom
  3. Not cleaning reptile equipment in the kitchen or bathroom
  4. Not eating, drinking or smoking while handling reptiles

Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends that kids under five years of age and immunocompromised individuals should completely avoid contact with reptiles … just in case.

But Dr. Doug Mader, veterinary specialist on the reptile front, has this to offer by way of commentary:

It should be noted that even though these numbers sound extreme, Salmonella species are ubiquitous and can be found not only in the common animals we encounter every day (eg, dogs, cats, mice, rats, birds, cockroaches, hermit crabs), but also in such foods as peanut butter, tomatoes, raw eggs and uncooked chicken. In fact, the odds of contracting salmonellosis are greater from exposure to these foods than from contact with reptiles.

And I do believe him. But are the odds in our favor because so few of us are willing to keep reptiles relative to eating soft-boiled eggs? Not sure about that one. I’ll keep you posted.

Dr. Patty Khuly

Pic of the day: turtle-face by reggie35

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