Understand zoonotic disease before getting a pet reptile or amphibian

July 19, 2018 Providence Health Team


Reptiles and amphibians carry germs and bacteria that may cause serious illness in humans.

Always wash your hands with warm, soapy water after handling any reptile or amphibian.

Reptile-associated salmonella dangerous and can lead to serious health complications.

Pets can be a wonderful addition to your family. Not only do they give you hours of entertainment and enjoyment for you and your children, they can provide emotional support as well. However, when considering any pet there are potential health risks to keep in mind, particularly for animals like turtles, frogs, fish, and lizards.

Amphibians and reptiles are popular pets with many families because they are quiet and relatively low maintenance. When comparing them to other animals, reptiles and amphibians are hypoallergenic, which is a big plus for parents who have children with allergies. However, they frequently carry germs, fungus, bacteria and zoonotic diseases that may cause serious illness in people.

What is a zoonotic disease?
Harmful germs like viruses, bacterium, parasites, and fungi cause zoonotic diseases that can be easily passed from animals to humans. One important germ is salmonella, which exists naturally in the digestive tract of healthy reptiles and amphibians.

Reptile-associated salmonella is a bacterial disease that can cause serious infections in humans, including anyone who has contact with the animals, their environments or the water in which they live. These infections are more dangerous than food-borne salmonella, more likely to be associated with invasive disease, often led to hospitalization and more frequently involve infants than other salmonella infections. Reptiles can be carriers of this type of bacteria without any signs of illness.

Before welcoming a reptile or amphibian into your home it is very important to understand how to properly care for and handle it as well as become aware of the diseases it may carry. Regular veterinary care and easy hygiene habits, however, can reduce your risk of getting sick from touching, petting or owning one of these animals.

Signs and symptoms of salmonella and other zoonotic diseases
The most common symptoms of salmonella and other zoonotic diseases like rabies, anthrax, tularemia and West Nile virus include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Muscle aches
  • Fever

Safe handling tips for reptiles and amphibians
There are ways you can safely own and enjoy a reptilian or amphibious animal in your home, such as:

  • Keeping your hands clean
    It is important to always wash your hands thoroughly after handling your pet.
  • Separating your pet from the kitchen
    Keep your pet out of any area where food is kept, prepared served or eaten to reduce the risk of cross-contamination.
  • Cleaning your pet’s habitat outside of your home
    Another helpful way to lower the risk of cross-contamination is to clean your pet’s habitat and other belongings outside or in a dedicated wash bin with warm, soapy water. Be sure to clean the bin and any surfaces it touches.

Tips for choosing a reptile or amphibian pet

If you’ve decided to select a reptile or amphibian pet, here are some tips to help choose a companion that will bring you joy and entertainment — and to help you avoid illness:

  • Turtles should be at least four inches in length and purchased only at a trusted pet store. Because the risk of salmonella is so great, the sale of small turtles was banned in 1975.
  • Keep in mind reptiles and amphibians might not be suitable for your family due to their risk of spreading diseases to humans. If you have a pregnant woman, very young children or persons with a weakened immune system in your home, you may want to consider alternative options.
  • Check local, state and property laws to make sure your pet will be allowed in your apartment or rental home.
  • Always purchase reptiles and amphibians at a trusted pet store; do not catch them in the wild and keep them as pets.
  • Talk to your veterinarian about the housing and feeding requirements to make sure your family is ready and willing for the responsibility of owning an animal.

While reptiles and amphibians carry the highest risk for zoonotic parasites, human family members are at a potential risk for diseases no matter which pet you welcome into your home. If you have a reptile or amphibian as a pet and are experiencing diarrhea or any of the symptoms listed above, please contact your primary care physician. Be sure to tell them you have been in recent contact with a reptile or amphibian.

Find a primary care provider or specialist near you.

We hope these helpful handling tips will help you enjoy a happy, healthy companionship with your reptile or amphibian!

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.


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