Sneaky Salmonella and More

Know the risks of pets beyond dogs and cats

By Tara Haelle

Your child plays with a toad found in the yard. Your son’s preschool classmate brings in a baby chick for show and tell at Easter time. Your daughter excitedly moves her hand along the scales of a boa constrictor at a street fair. Every one of these common scenarios has something in common with raw cookie dough: the risk of salmonella. When your pets (or other animals your children encounter) go beyond dogs and cats, it’s important to recognize the illnesses animals can bring into the home. Salmonella is a big one because the risk is greatest with reptiles and amphibians.

Owning and handling amphibians and reptiles is fine if everyone washes their hands thoroughly afterward. Photo by Andrzej Pobiedziski

Owning and handling amphibians and reptiles is fine if everyone washes their hands thoroughly afterward. Photo by Andrzej Pobiedziski

My mom was a friend of frogs, a lizard lover and a rescuer of turtles: she would pull over on the side of the road to save a box turtle or sliders from the middle of the road, and then she would sometimes bring them home. But we always had to wash our hands before and after handling them because salmonella can live on their skin without harming the animal at all, which means there is no way of knowing whether that animal is carrying the bacteria. That doesn’t mean you have to get rid of your prized bearded dragon or your 25-year-old boa constrictor, but keep them out of reach from the kids and don’t bring the pet (or its tank, if it has one) into food prep areas.

When an outbreak does occur, it can take months or years to determine the source of it. For example, an outbreak of salmonella caused by African dwarf frogs spanned 2008 to 2011 because it took that long for epidemiologists to piece together the source of the infection (the frogs) and then the common factors in the frogs. Almost a third of the 376 individuals who got sick – mostly children – were hospitalized, but none died.

Salmonella can also exist in mammals, such as kittens and gerbils, hamsters or other rodents, but mammals usually show symptoms of infection, so avoid pets that look particularly quiet, tired or sickly (or that have diarrhea or weeping eyes or nose). Baby chicks, on the other hand, can shed the bacteria from their feathers without being affected at all. Every spring, health departments see a new wave of salmonella sickness because of the popularity of chicks this time of year. Other kinds of birds and hedgehogs are also well-established carriers of salmonella.

A variety of other illnesses can also be caused by pets, such as lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV) in pet rodents. Typically, wild mice are the most common carriers of LCMV – a good reason to set traps or clean up droppings – but hamsters have transmitted the virus to humans as well. However, with this infection and others from animals, soap and water are the best methods of prevention. That and keeping an eye on small children since kissing a frog is more likely to give your little princess an infection than a prince.

Cover photo by Rafael Decker

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Tara Haelle

About Tara Haelle

Tara Haelle, health editor of DoubleXScience, is a photographer, former high school teacher, current adjunct journalism professor (Bradley University), aspiring children's book writer, avid scuba diver, former triathlete, sometimes yogi, and eternally curious journalist who primarily specializes in health and science reporting. She was once a world traveler, eating strange insects, climbing ancient ruins and swimming with sharks, but that was before she became a mom (though she knows those days beckon again soon). She also blogs about health and science for parents at Red Wine & Apple Sauce and is a senior editor of mental health at dailyRx News. She is most passionate about reporting on vaccines, marine biology, mental health, parenting and prenatal and children's health, but she also dreams of a day when she can revamp the entire U.S. educational system to improve reading instruction and science literacy.