As committed pet owners, there is nothing more rewarding than interacting with, and enjoying our animals up-close. Reptile keepers are no different, with many people choosing to make a pet lizard, snake, turtle or even frog a part of the family. We go to great lengths to ensure our beloved pets every need is catered for and that they live an enriched, happy and healthy life. However, when you bring an animal such as a reptile into your home, it is also important to consider your own health and be aware of some simple measures that can be taken to ensure you and your family are never at risk.

What is Salmonella?

Salmonella refers to a group of bacteria that live in the intestinal tract of many different types of animals including reptiles, amphibians, fish, birds and even dogs and cats. Salmonella is believed to be a normal part of the gut flora in many species of reptile, both in the wild and in captivity. Reptiles that carry salmonella are in most cases asymptomatic and live a perfectly healthy life without showing any negative signs.

Salmonella is a zoonotic disease, meaning it can be contracted by multiple species, including humans. Salmonella is spread through faeces and can be transmitted to humans by either direct, or indirect contact with an infected animal. The bacteria can enter the body after handling a pet or contaminated object if proper hygiene practises are not followed. Whilst there are few reported cases of people contracting salmonella from a pet reptile in Australia, it is still important to be aware of the disease, its signs and symptoms and know how to prevent infection in humans. 

Symptoms of Salmonella Infection

Salmonella infection in reptiles is often a secondary issue as a result of some other health or husbandry problem. An animal may only show symptoms of salmonellosis if their immunity is compromised during times of stress or other illness. During this time, the pathogen may move from the gastrointestinal tract into other parts of the body. Symptoms in reptiles include weight loss, lethargy, diarrhoea and pneumonia. Signs that a human may have contracted salmonella often include severe diarrhoea, chills and fever.

Whilst many native reptiles commonly carry salmonella in their gut, snakes and lizards are the most likely to be natural hosts for the bacteria. Turtles and frogs may also carry salmonella and species that are primarily carnivorous are also more likely to carry salmonella than herbivores. In humans, most cases of salmonella infection occur in children under the age of 10, in the elderly, or those with weakened immune systems.

Treatment

In a healthy pet reptile there is no need to preventatively treat against salmonella. Reptiles that become ill must be seen by a specialist veterinarian immediately for diagnosis and treatment may include administration of fluids and antibiotics in advanced cases. In humans, the illness usually goes away on its own after a period of time, however, in severe cases seek prompt medical assistance. If a member of the family develops diarrhoea, fever or stomach cramps, it is important to notify your doctor that you have a pet reptile in the home.

Prevention is the Best Cure!

Whilst it is unlikely that you, or anyone in your family will contract salmonella from a pet reptile, there are a number of preventative measures that should be taken.

  • Always thoroughly wash hands before and after handling a pet reptile, or anything that has come into contact with the reptile or its faeces including enclosure furnishings, food and water bowls etc.
  • Young children should always be supervised by an adult when handling a reptile and assistance must be given to ensure their hands are washed thoroughly afterwards.
  • Never kiss a pet reptile, or place it close to your face or mouth.
  • Pet reptiles should not be allowed to roam freely through the house.
  • Do not bathe your reptile in a kitchen sink, or on a bench where human food is prepared. It is best to wash enclosure furnishings as well as food and water bowls in a separate area away from food preparation areas.
  • Use gloves when cleaning your reptile’s enclosure and always sterilise and disinfect the enclosure and any furnishings using a reptile-safe disinfectant such as Vetafarm’s Herpa Care, which is available as both a concentrate or ready to use spray bottle.

Reptiles make fascinating pets and their popularity has increased significantly over recent years. They make the perfect pet for children and adults alike and not only teach kids about the responsibility of owning a pet but also give them an appreciation for these amazing native creatures. Salmonella should never be a reason not to own a reptile, just an important lesson for children regarding proper hygiene requirements when handling or caring for their pet.

Article written by Ben Dessen