Reptiles and the risk of Infectious Diseases
Reptiles such as snakes, turtles, tortoises and lizards have become popular as pets. Their appeal is that they are colourful, quiet and generally easy to look after. And 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 illness (especially in small children, pregnant women, the elderly and people with serious disease such as cancer).
The range of reptiles that can be obtained today in Ireland is very large including snakes, lizards (chameleons, Iguanas, geckos, bearded dragons, skinks), tortoises, turtles, terrapins (fresh water turtles). 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 on to the family of reptile owners. The most significant of these include:
Salmonella: Salmonella are commonly found in all types of reptiles and 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 bottles of formula contaminated by contact with the reptile/reptile faeces. Salmonella infection causes diarrhoea, headache, fever and stomach cramps and can result in septicaemia (blood poisoning). Dehydration can be severe. In 2008, there were 449 cases of salmonellosis, fifteen cases of which had recent contact with reptiles. Nine of these fifteen cases were under one year of age.
Botulism: Botulism is a serious and life-threatening illness caused by a toxin released by the Clostridium bacterium that causes paralysis and death. Clostridium is found widely in the environment including soil and mud as spores and animals that live close to the ground are commonly contaminated with clostridium. Clostridium 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. 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. Accordingly, 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: illness such as campylobacteriosis (a bowel infection), leptospirosis (a liver disease), trichinellosis (a disease of muscles, the nervous system and the heart and lungs) have been associated with keeping reptiles and while most are treatable, some can be very serious. That 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 or 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 with hot water any surfaces with which your reptile has had contact.
- 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, reptile tanks or reptile 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 your local vet or specialist reptile vet for further information on reptiles.
- Further useful information can be obtained from Waterford County Councils Veterinary Services.
More information is available on infectious disease risks posed by pets and other animals.