Reptiles & Infectious Disease

Reptiles and children should be closely monitored; but they can and do make wonderful pets. However, potential owners are advised to note the risk to small children; especially for those with a lower immune system. This is due to Salmonella and botulism, as well as a number of other infectious diseases; which can be transmitted between reptiles and humans.

Careful attention to hygiene and cleanliness is essential when keeping reptiles. Therefore, below is a copy of the latest report from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre which should be read by all of those considering keeping reptiles as pets.

Source: The Health Protections Surveillance Centre, December 2013

The Health Protection Surveillance Centre have issued the following report and health warning for those with young children; or those with a lower immune system who currently have, or are thinking of getting, a reptile as a pet.

Reptiles such as snakes, turtles, tortoises and lizards have become very popular as pets. Their charm is that they are colourful, quiet and generally easy to look after; in addition, their unusual appearance is very appealing to small children. However, they require careful handling as they carry a range of germs that can lead to human illnesses; such as in small children, pregnant women, the elderly and people with serious diseases such as cancer.

The range of reptiles that can be obtained in Ireland is very large including; snakes, lizards, tortoises, turtles, and terrapins. It is even possible to obtain larger snakes and crocodilians (crocodiles and alligators). But, these large reptiles are dangerous animals; and no reputable pet shop would knowingly sell such animals into a family setting.
All reptiles carry a range of germs including bacteria, viruses, parasites and worms. Many of these can be transmitted to the owners of the reptile. The most significant of these include:

Salmonella: are commonly found in all types of reptiles. It can spread from reptiles to humans when something contaminated with reptile faeces is placed in the mouth. For example, infants can become infected with Salmonella by drinking out of bottles contaminated by contact with the reptile and its faeces. Salmonella infection causes diarrhoea, headache, fever and stomach cramps and can result in Septicaemia (blood poisoning). Dehydration can also be severe. In 2008, there were 449 cases of Salmonellosis, 15 cases of which had recent contact with reptiles. Nine of these fifteen cases were under one year of age.

Botulism: is a serious and life-threatening illness caused by a toxin released by the Clostridium bacteria that causes paralysis and death. Clostridium is found widely in the environment including soil and mud. This is due to spores and animals that live close to the ground who are commonly contaminated with Clostridium. It commonly contaminates reptiles, especially aquatic reptiles.

Adults and older children have a range of bacteria that overgrow the spores responsible; but small babies under the age of one year have not yet developed this protection yet. It has recently been recognised that exposure to turtles or to turtle feed was the likely cause in two cases of infant Botulism in Ireland.

In conclusion, the HPSC advises that reptiles (especially turtles) are not appropriate pets for small children; and should not be kept in households in which there are children under the age of five. In addition, if you own turtles and you visit a household in which there are children under five (and most especially households with infants under the age of one); you should wash your hands immediately after contact with turtles or their water and again on entering the house in which there are small children.

Other infections: illnesses such as Campylobacteriosis (a bowel infection), Leptospirosis (a liver disease), Trichinellosis (a disease of muscles, the nervous system and the heart and lungs) have all been associated with keeping reptiles. However, while most are treatable, some can be very serious. That being said, the risk for most people keeping reptiles does not pose a significant health risk; as long as proper hygiene is maintained. Most people have a low risk of getting ill with Salmonella infection from contact with reptiles, and this risk can be reduced further by following the advice below.

Reptiles should not be kept as pets in a house where there are children under the age of five
All reptiles should be considered to be contaminated with one (or many) of the above bacteria
• Pregnant women, elderly, frail adults or immunosuppressed people (e.g. people with cancer, HIV/AIDS, people with a CD4 count less than 200) should avoid all contact with reptiles
• After handling your reptile always wash your hands with hot, soapy water
• Always wash your hands after touching reptile tanks and equipment, reptile food and reptile faeces
• Reptiles must be kept out of the kitchen, dining areas, and any other area in which food is prepared
• Where possible, keep your reptile confined to its tank or cage
• Wash any surfaces with hot water which your reptile has had contact with
• Only wash your reptile in its own basin. Never use sinks or the bath. Always wear disposable gloves when cleaning tanks, cages, or equipment. Waste water and faeces should be disposed of in the toilet or outside drain
• Do not eat, drink, or smoke while handling reptiles, their tanks or their equipment
• Do not kiss reptiles or share food or drink with them
• Wash any clothes that have been in contact with your reptile. Use a warm or hot wash.
• Older children who handle reptiles should avoid putting their hands near their mouths until they have washed their hands. Nor should children put objects that the reptile has touched near their mouths
• Reptiles should not be kept in child-care facilities or crèches; they are not appropriate pets for small children
• Follow expert advice on the feeding and welfare (e.g. environment) of your reptile as stress to the animal can cause it to shed Salmonella and other pathogens
Ask us or your local vet or specialist reptile vet for further information on reptiles.