Protecting Yourself From Reptile Associated Salmonella
Susan M. Tellem, RN
When Peter bought a quarter-size green turtle from a Los Angeles street vendor for his young son
Danny, he had no idea he was bringing home a tiny package of life that packed a big wallop of a disease. Within days, Danny
ended up in the ICU with severe vomiting, lethargy and fever. He almost died from Salmonella.
An infant in New York
City, admitted to the hospital with vomiting, chills and fever also was diagnosed with Salmonella. Although there were no
reptiles in the child's household, her babysitter passed along Salmonella from her pet iguana.
In Texas, an HIV
positive, 45 year old pet store employee who routinely handled reptiles, was treated for severe Salmonella sepsis (a serious
illness that results when Salmonella enters the blood stream).
All over America, men and women, adults and kids are
unknowingly trading, buying and giving "the gift" of Salmonella, a infection that can kill. Reptiles, like iguanas
and water turtles are purchased at pet stores, as well as from the black market, private reptile breeders, and swap meets.
Many reptile sellers do not post warnings about the dangers of Salmonella even though state and federal laws require it.
According to the New York Department of Health, Salmonella is "a bacterial infection that generally
infects the intestinal tract and occasionally the blood stream. Symptoms include mild to severe diarrhea, fever and occasionally
vomiting. Symptoms generally appear one to three days after exposure. It is spread by eating or drinking contaminated food
or by contact with infected people, animals and reptiles."
Reptiles are more popular than ever. According to the
Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, there are between seven and eight million pet reptiles owned in about three percent of
America's households. Reptile ownership is on the increase. U.S. Fish and Wildlife reports while about 27,000 iguanas
were imported in 1986, the figure increased to almost 800,000 in 1993.
Upwards of 80 percent of the imported iguanas
carry Salmonella, according to Richard Evans, DVM, Chief of Veterinary Services, Veterinary Public Health, Orange County (Calif.)
Health Agency. "If you bought an iguana, you bought the wrong pet," he says emphatically. "There is no known
treatment for Salmonella in the iguana (or turtle). Even if you treat the Salmonella in your pet, it returns."
most healthy adult owners show no symptoms of Salmonella even if they are infected, Dr. Evans says children under five, pregnant
women and the elderly as well as those whose immune systems are compromised such as those with AIDS, kidney transplants or
people undergoing treatment for cancer are at risk of serious illness or even death from Salmonella infection.
warns teachers that reptiles (and other animals like chicks that also carry Salmonella) are not appropriate for classrooms.
"Show them pictures," he says.
A teacher is a sitting duck for a lawsuit should any of the children in the
classroom get infected. "Teachers know the risks, so if a parent were to sue for a million dollars (much more if the
child dies), the parent will win." It is not worth the risk he says.
During the 1970s,
millions of tiny baby turtles were sold throughout the United States as pets. By the mid-70s, a quarter of a million children
and infants were diagnosed as having turtle-associated Salmonella. In 1975, the Food & Drug Administration, in an effort
to stop the problem, prohibited the sale of any turtles under four inches in length. This law still stands but is poorly enforced.
to American Tortoise Rescue (ATR), Los Angeles, and the New York Turtle and Tortoise Society, throughout the country, tiny
turtles called red-eared sliders are being sold by vendors on street corners, in shopping malls, in front of museums and even
at pet stores. Typically ranging in price from $2 to $10, turtles imported from Mexico and harvested from Louisiana are often
infected with Salmonella.
"Buyers tell us that none of the black market vendors ever issued a health warning with
the sale of the turtles," says Marshall Thompson, co-founder of ATR.
Unsupervised children are frequently at risk
with these small turtles because they can easily put them in their mouths. "We've been in pet stores where illegal
turtles were for sale," says Thompson. "As we watched, children under five fished out the turtles from the tank
where they were for sale and never washed their hands afterward"
Allen Salzberg, of the New York Turtle & Tortoise
Society, says that the sale of tiny turtles will explode now that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle craze is heating up. "Parents
want to purchase a turtle because of their childÂ’s fascination with the Ninja Turtles. This is a recipe for an
ecological disaster." Why? Because of the financial commitment and effort to care for the turtle over a 25 year lifespan
-- and the risk of Salmonella to the child, parents release the turtle "into the wild" where it is not among it's
native species. Here it can also infect the existing turtle population with Salmonella.
to national reptile specialist, Walter Rosskopf, DVM, who runs the Avian & Exotic Animal Hospital in Hawthorne, Calif.
"Reptiles can be kept by responsible people who take strict precautions." He is opposed to children owning reptiles
because of the health hazards.
Says Dr. Rosskopf, "Salmonella, in my experience, is seen most commonly in water
turtles, boa constrictors and iguanas. The infected reptile frequently shows no symptoms, and culturing stools to identify
Salmonella is a hit and miss proposition."
Dr. Rosskopf gives good advice for those who currently have reptiles
as pets or plan to purchase one.
- Wash your hands with hot, soapy water (preferably antibacterial soap) after handling
the pet, its cage or cage accessories.
- Wear gloves and face protection when cleaning a cage or changing the water
in a tank, pool or pond.
- Always supervise and minimize a child's handling of a reptile.
- House reptiles
away from the kitchen, dining room and food preparation areas.
- Keep other pets away from reptiles, including their
cages and water bowls.
- Make regular reptile veterinary visits and have laboratory screening tests done.
not us the bathroom sink or shower as a reptile soaking area.
- Do not eat, drink or smoke while handling the reptile
or cleaning its environment.
- If your reptile injures you, clean the wound thoroughly and consult a physician. Reptile
injuries can become easily infected.
- Although it might be tempting, Dr. Rosskopf also warns, "Do not kiss your