Most of us associate Salmonella with under-cooked beef, poultry and eggs or unwashed fruits and vegetables or unpasteurized milk, but there are several types of the Salmonella bacteria, as well as several ways of being infected. Just handling a piece of raw chicken is not the only way to become a victim of Salmonellosis. One of the latest outbreaks reported by the United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has been due to infection from pet bearded dragons (genus Pogona). These large, spiny-scaled desert-dwelling lizards with triangular heads and spiky frills around the neck can expose their owners and family members to Salmonella Cotham, and to a lesser degree Salmonella Kisarawe.
Who Is the Bearded Dragon?
Bearded Dragons are native to Australia; with 9 different species and a variety of sizes and color patterns, “beardies” appeal to reptile enthusiasts and are available from pet stores and private breeders. They range in size from 10 inches and under for young beardies, 10-16 inches for young adults, and 16-20+ inches for older adults. The pet beardie generally lives in a cage, tank or terrarium, requires proper lighting, and being accustomed to the desert, temperature control of 95 to 110 degrees (with a low of 85 degrees). Their diet consists mainly of plants, insects, vegetables and fruit. (The Bearded Dragon)
If you’re not afraid of lizards or reptiles, Bearded Dragons are actually kind of cute, in a dragon-y sort of way. The shape of the mouth makes them appear to be smiling much of the time and their antics (head bobbing, arm waving, and beard fluffing) make them seem even more adorable. But they are wild animals and will bite when hungry, fearful, or during mating season. (Bearded Dragon Care Dr.)
Salmonellosis Outbreak in the U.S.
“As of June 6, 2014, a total of 150 persons infected with the outbreak strains of Salmonella Cotham (145 persons) or Salmonella Kisarawe (5 persons) have been reported from 35 states since February 21, 2012.” (CDC) Most of those infected are children under the age of 5; 43% of all victims have been hospitalized, but no deaths have been reported to date. Interviews conducted by the CDC and state and local officials have obtained information indicating that 92% of those infected had contact with Bearded Dragons. “Young children, older adults, and people who have impaired immune systems are the most likely to have severe infections.” (WebMD) In collaboration with the pet industry and reptile breeders, the CDC is attempting to determine the source of the infected animals.
In addition to the infection from Bearded Dragons, a small outbreak of Salmonella Typhimurium was reported by the CDC in January 2014. The source of the infection was indicated as frozen feeder rodents (used to feed pet reptiles, amphibians, and birds of prey) packaged by Reptile Industries, Inc. Contact with these frozen rodents, as well as with live ones, can result in infection from the Salmonella virus. (CDC)
Both reptiles and amphibians have been implicated in Salmonella contamination. Turtles, frogs, iguanas, snakes, geckos, horned toads, salamanders, and chameleons, though popular as pets, can all carry the Salmonella virus and should be handled carefully. A Salmonella Typhimurium outbreak in 31 states involving 85 cases was reported in 2009 and linked to contact with water frogs, including the African Dwarf Frog. The CDC has advised pet store owners and breeders that they should warn the public of the possible dangers associated with reptiles and amphibians as pets.
“Contact with reptiles can be a source of human Salmonella infections. Reptiles can be carrying Salmonella bacteria but appear healthy and clean and show no signs of illness.” (CDC) Salmonellosis affects the intestines and occasionally the bloodstream, with diarrhea and possible dehydration being the most common complications. To avoid infection, scrupulous attention to cleanliness and disinfection are necessary. Above all, thorough hand washing is most important; wash hands if you have come into contact with the animals, their habitat, any utensils, water, or other paraphernalia used in their care and feeding. Children and older persons should not come into contact with the animals. Do not let animals roam through the house or in areas where food or drink is prepared. Do not place animals in sinks, bathtubs, or kiddie pools; however if you bathe an animal in any of these places disinfect thoroughly with a registered disinfectant or sanitizer (or with a bleach solution).
Adopting an exotic animal or other reptile or amphibian is something that should be thought through carefully. Proper care and feeding, as well as sanitary precautions, should always be considered and observed. Parents with young children should think twice before choosing to add one of these pets to the family. The idea of having an unusual pet that impresses your friends is not a valid reason for adoption, and the welfare of family members should always be uppermost in the minds of pet owners. Salmonella is no laughing matter, especially for the young, old, or those with compromised immune systems; and it doesn’t deserve a comfortable place in your home.
Bearded Dragon Care Dr., “Do Bearded Dragons Bite,” Aug. 19, 2011, http://www.beardeddragoncaredr.com/do-bearded-dragons-bite/
CDC, “Multistate Outbreak of Human Salmonella Cotham and Salmonella Kisarawe Infections Linked to Contact with Pet Bearded Dragons,” June 12, 2014, http://www.cdc.gov/salmonella/cotham-04-14/index.html
CDC, “Multistate Outbreak of Human Salmonella Typhimurium Infections Linked to Frozen Feeder Rodents,” June 20, 2014, http://www.cdc.gov/salmonella/typhimurium-rodents-05-14/index.html
New York Dept. of Health, “Salmonella Infection from Frogs, Turtles and Lizards,” rev. Aug. 2011, https://www.health.ny.gov/diseases/communicable/zoonoses/salmonella/amphibian_reptilian_questions_and_answers.htm
The Bearded Dragon, “Everything You Need to Know About Bearded Dragons,” http://www.thebeardeddragon.org/
WebMD, “Salmonellosis – Topic Overview,” Oct. 18, 2012, http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/food-poisoning/tc/salmonellosis-topic-overview