By Jason T. Hardiman
This article is meant to highlight the potential transmission of Salmonella from reptiles to humans. It also includes who is at risk, as well as, the signs, symptoms, and treatments in cases of Salmonella infection.
Salmonella is bacteria that can cause mild to severe illness in humans and is one of the most common causes of food poisoning in the United States. Most, if not all, reptiles carry Salmonella on their skin, in their gut and occasionally shed them in their feces. Per the Minnesota Herpetological Society, about 95% of Salmonella infections result from eating contaminated foods such as raw eggs, undercooked meat and poultry, and under-washed vegetables; however, transmission from reptiles to humans is steadily increasing and can be traced back to pet reptiles. According to this same source, it is stated that it is virtually impossible to eliminate Salmonella from reptiles. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that reptiles and amphibians frequently carry Salmonella, which can potentially cause illness in people. Many people think that Salmonella infections are caused only by contaminated food; however, Salmonella be can be transmitted from reptiles and amphibians to humans (zoonoses) via handling of the particular species without proper sanitation afterwards.
How is Salmonella transmitted from reptiles to humans?
Salmonella infection (Salmonellosis) is more common in the summer than in the winter. Reptiles and amphibians commonly carry Salmonella on their bodies even when they appear healthy and clean. Anything that these species come in contact with also have a risk of becoming contaminated. 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. If someone touches reptiles or amphibians, it is important to thoroughly and immediately wash hands with soap and warm water because the germs can easily spread to other people or things. Hand sanitizer is a great alternative to use if warm water and soap are not available.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have 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.
Who is at risk for getting sick?
According to the CDC, young children are at increased risk for Salmonella infection because their immune systems are still developing and because they are more likely than others to put their fingers or other items into their mouth. Also, elderly persons and those with weakened immune systems (HIV/AIDS, undergoing chemotherapy, transplant recipients, diabetes mellitus, etc…) are more likely than others to develop severe illness.
Signs, Symptoms, and Treatments
Those humans who become infected with Salmonella usually have mild, self-limiting illness characterized by diarrhea (which may be bloody), vomiting, fever, and abdominal cramps. According to the CDC, a small number of people with Salmonella develop pain in their joints (reactive arthritis or Reiter’s Syndrome) that can last for months or years and can lead to chronic arthritis, which can be difficult to treat. Reactive arthritis can also develop irritation of the eyes and painful urination. When severe infections occur, Salmonella may spread from the intestines to the bloodstream, bone marrow or nervous system, leading to severe, and sometimes fatal, illness unless the person is treated expeditiously with antibiotics. However; antibiotic treatment of the initial Salmonella infection does not make a difference in whether or not the person develops arthritis. Symptoms develop 12 to 72 hours after infection and in some instances, the illness usually lasts 4 to 7 days. Most infections resolve without treatment; however, in some cases, the diarrhea may be so severe that the patient needs to be hospitalized – via CDC on Salmonella. The CDC estimates that approximately 1.2 million illnesses and approximately 450 deaths occur due to Salmonella annually in the United States.
If infected with Salmonella, one should drink plenty of fluids and get plenty of rest. If unable to drink enough fluids to prevent dehydration or if symptoms are severe, immediate medical attention should be sought.
Minnesota Herpetological Society. (n.d.). Retrieved from Reptiles and Salmonella: http://www.mnherpsoc.com/content/reptiles-and-salmonella
Office of the Associate Director for Communication, D. M. (2013, November 25). Reptiles, Amphibians, and Salmonella. Retrieved from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: http://www.cdc.gov/features/salmonellafrogturtle/
Sciences, U. D. (2016, June 24). Foodsafety.gov. Retrieved from https://www.foodsafety.gov/poisoning/causes/bacteriaviruses/salmonella/
Services, U. D. (2016, June 2). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from Salmonella: http://www.cdc.gov/salmonella/
Smith, D. F. (1997-2016). Pet Education. Retrieved from Salmonellosis: Reptile Owners at Risk from Turtles. Lizards and Snakes: http://www.peteducation.com/article.cfm?c=17+1796&aid=623