Since I was born with a genetic immune disorder that renders me incapable of producing antibodies to diseases, I'm always coming down with something. I've had just about every virus you can get, from the flu to cytomegalovirus, and a host of hard to pronounce bacterial and fungal infections of my respiratory tract, skin, and digestive system (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureas, klebsiella, neisseria, pseudomonas, and cochliobolus just to name a few). I have, however, never once contracted salmonella – despite having reptile and amphibian pets since childhood.
I've had just about every virus you can get...I have, however, never once contracted salmonella – despite having reptile and amphibian pets since childhood.
When I tell people I have reptiles for pets I inevitably get asked: “aren't you worried about getting salmonella?” My answer is: “are you worried about getting E.coli or toxoplasmosis from petting your cat after it grooms itself? Or getting bartonellosis (cat scratch disease) if your cat scratches you? Are you concerned about getting staph or worms from your dog that shares the couch and bed with you? Or what about Lyme disease from the ticks that they can carry? Are you worried about getting psittacosis from your bird, or cryptosporidium from your hamster, or pasteurellosis from your rabbit? What about the possibility of getting mycobacteriosis from fish tank water?” Generally, the people I'm talking to have no idea that there are illnesses they can get from their traditional pets.
Certainly, reptiles can carry salmonella (the CDC reports that about 2% to 5% of salmonella infections per year come from reptiles) but did you know that dogs, cats, hamsters, and even horses can carry it too? Most people with traditional pets don't realize how many zoonotic diseases they can get from their furry or feathery friends, but a simple Google search reveals that there are plenty of bugs that are transferable between people and their pet mammals and birds. The majority of these infections happen in children who do not practice good hygiene, so no matter what pet you have it is important to monitor your children with pets and to model good hygiene practices for them.
When it comes to reptiles and amphibians good hygiene practices include: washing your hands or using alcohol based hand sanitizer like Purell after you handle the pet, not allowing your pet to crawl over surfaces where food is prepared or where your face might be (for example, the pillows on your bed), thoroughly and regularly cleaning and disinfecting the pet's enclosure and food/water bowls, not eating or drinking while handling them or cleaning their enclosures, not kissing your pet, washing your hands or using hand sanitizer after handling feeder rodents or feeder insects, and washing and disinfecting any clothing which comes into contact with waste like feces. For immune compromised people (like me) and children or the elderly who are more susceptible to salmonella, extra precautions can be taken such as wearing gloves when handling the reptile and cleaning it's enclosure.
Good hygiene practices as an adult and parental supervision as a child kept me safe from animal-borne illnesses – and I've practically had a zoo! In my lifetime I have had dogs, cats, ferrets, a horse, hamsters, a newt, snakes, fish, frogs, and a lizard and the only illness I've ever gotten from a pet was a skin infection that I got from my dog as an adult. No matter what precautions you take there is always a chance that you will get an illness from your pet, whether it has fur, feathers, or scales. However with good hygiene practices and supervision of children these risks can be minimized and you can safely enjoy a lifetime of companionship with your pets.
I firmly believe that the risks of becoming ill from your pet are far outweighed by the benefits they provide. Indeed, studies have shown that people with pets live longer, have less risk of heart disease, have lower stress levels, and are less likely to be depressed than people who don't have pets. So, don't let the myth of the disease-ridden reptile keep you from bringing home a scaly friend of your own...it just might save your life!