Most, if not all, reptiles carry Salmonella bacteria in their intestinal tract and may shed these bacteria in their faeces. Salmonella bacteria usually do not cause any illness in reptiles, but can cause serious illness in people.
The Public Health Laboratory Service in the UK has published guidelines for reptile owners which are reproduced below: -
Public Health Laboratory Services advice to reptile owners and handlers
There is an inherent risk of salmonella infection associated with exotic pets, such as reptiles, and that risk is elevated in children and those with impaired immune systems. The health risks include handling, feeding and cleaning of reptiles and vivaria where salmonella is present on surfaces or on the reptile may contaminate the handler. There may also be a risk associated with handling of raw (frozen or defrosted) mice, rats, or chicks which may also be contaminated. Increased awareness through publicity of these risks is required to ensure that both reptile owners and pet shops are aware of these risks, and can act accordingly.
The Health Protection Agency's advice is:
- Families with young children should be aware of the health risks associated with having a reptile as a family pet
- Pet shop owners should advise their customers of the potential risks associated with reptile ownership
- Pet reptiles should be kept out of kitchens and food preparation areas
- Kitchen sinks should not be used for bathing reptiles or cleaning reptile's dishes or vivaria. If bathtubs are used for these activities, they should be cleaned thoroughly with disinfectant
- Good hand hygiene practices should be employed at all times when handling and looking after any pet. This means that anyone handling a reptile or an object that has been in contact with a reptile should wash their hands thoroughly immediately afterwards
- Hand-washing after touching a reptile is particularly important before touching or feeding a baby, young child or immunocompromised person, as this could pose a risk to them
The PHLS have also been involved in active monitoring of salmonella and the findings of their most recent report are listed below
‘In December 2008, the Health Protection Agency, Centre for Infections detected a gradual but sustained increase in a new phage type of Salmonella typhimurium, designated definitive type 191a (DT 191a). Most isolates received at the Laboratory of Gastrointestinal Pathogens (LGP) were resistant to the antimicrobial tetracycline. A working hypothesis was defined based on responses from 10 interviewed cases who had been ill in November and December and a case control study launched using cases of confirmed S. typhimurium DT 191a, with resistance to tetracycline, reported from LGP after the 1 January 2009. The hypothesis in the study was that infection with Typhimurium DT 191a was associated with exposure to reptiles.
The Centre for Infections (CfI) interviewed 21 cases and 18 controls for the study. Controls were defined as non travel-related Salmonella enteritidis infections reported to CfI in the same time period as the cases. Of the cases interviewed, the majority owned or had contact with reptiles, especially snakes. Results from the study indicate that cases who had exposure to pet reptiles were more likely to have been ill with Salmonella typhimurium DT 191a than those who had no reptile contact (OR 16.82; P = 0.001; 95%; CI 2.78 - ?). In addition, most cases who reported contact with snakes also reported that the pets were fed with frozen mice.
Reports of this serotype continue to be received at LGP. To date, 110 cases with resistance to tetracycline have been received since August 2008. Cases are distributed across England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, with 49 females and 61 males. The cases range in age from two months to 69 years with a median of nine and mean of 15 years. Thirty-five per cent of the cases are under five years of age, and 67% (74) cases under 18 (table 1). The Scottish Salmonella, Shigella and Clostridium Difficile Laboratory has also reported the same salmonella from approximately 20 cases in the past three months, and also two corn snakes, belonging to cases reporting infection. A similar association between corn snakes and frozen feeder mice has been noted.’
It is important to realise that the reported rates of infection with Salmonella in the UK have fallen dramatically in recent years from a peak of infection recorded in 1997. For example, the current reported rate of infection in Wales with any type of salmonella form any source is 0.0021%. This trend may be attributable to many reasons such as, greater public awareness about food safety or vaccination of the UK egg-laying flock against Salmonella enteriditis which was introduced in 1998.
However keeping reptiles is recognised as a risk factor and the advice of the PHLS should be followed as this is good practice to reduce the risk of any disease transmission from pets to their owners. In addition to hand washing care has to be given as kissing a tortoise or placing it in your mouth also poses a risk of infection and children should be carefully observed and taught appropriately. Below is a printable fact sheet for use for any people involved in the care of reptiles.
Salmonella Guidelines for Reptile owners
Most, if not all, reptiles carry Salmonella bacteria in their intestinal tract and may shed these bacteria in their faeces. Salmonella bacteria usually do not cause any illness in reptiles, but can cause serious illness in people. Salmonella bacteria are easily spread from reptiles to humans. Humans may become infected when they place their hands on infected objects, including reptiles or faeces (droppings) of reptiles, and then into their mouths. Simply touching or holding a reptile will not result in spread of bacteria unless something contaminated with reptiles’ faeces or the reptile itself is placed in the mouth. Many if not all, reptiles in captivity have been found to carry Salmonella. Unfortunately, Salmonella bacteria cannot be eliminated from the intestinal tract of reptiles. Dosing reptiles with antibiotics to eliminate these bacteria has been unsuccessful and may result in Salmonella bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics that are then difficult to cure when infecting people. Information in this handout is not meant to discourage reptile ownership. With a few exceptions most people have a low risk of acquiring Salmonellosis from reptiles. This risk can be reduced even further by following these simple precautions:
- Always wash hands after handling reptiles or cleaning their vivaria
- Never eat, drink or smoke when handling reptiles or cleaning their vivaria
- Waste water and faecal material should be disposed of in the toilet instead of the bath or kitchen sink.
- Children less than five years of age should avoid contact with reptiles. Households with children less than one year of age should ideally not keep reptiles, or ensure they are kept in an outbuilding and stringent hygiene protocols followed
- Never leave children unattended with handling reptiles or cleaning their vivaria
- Never clean out reptile vivaria or cage furnishing in sinks where food is prepared or teeth are brushed
- Do not allow reptiles to roam in the kitchen, dining room, bathroom sinks and baths, to any area where infants are bathed or any other area in which food is prepared
- Do not kiss or share food with the reptile
- Some Salmonella infections in humans result in a mild illness of diarrhoea, fever and abdominal cramps. In other cases, the infection can lead to severe, and sometimes fatal, illness. Such severe infections are more likely to occur in infants and in individuals whose immune system is compromised. Such persons most at risk include; bone marrow or organ transplant recipients; persons with diabetes mellitus; persons taking corticosteroids for conditions such as atopy or asthma; persons infected with the human immunodeficiency virus; chemotherapy patients.
- Follow instructions from your reptile's vet concerning proper diet and environment for your reptile. Healthy reptiles living in proper environments are less likely to shed Salmonella bacteria.