One of the first things people say when they find out I’m a reptile keeper is, “What do you do about salmonella?”
No, it’s cool—I get it. Reptiles are known vectors of bacteria, and since salmonellosis isn’t exactly fun, I appreciate the concern. But what if I told you that the link between reptiles and salmonella is not a big deal?
Let’s take a step back.
History of Reptiles and Salmonella
Do you remember watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles back in the 90s? I sure do. I used to call them “Super Turtles.” Well, with this show came a surge of interest in keeping turtles as pets, and pet stores were flooded with silver-dollar-sized turtles that could be kept in tiny plastic tubs and fed raw hamburger or pelleted diet.
Suddenly, news stories about reptiles and salmonella were popping up all over the country. What happened?
As they played with their new pets, children would kiss or even ingest them, giving bacteria a red carpet welcome into the kids’ bodies. Turtles also have sharp claws, and if they cut the child, bacteria entered through the open wounds.
Symptoms of Salmonellosis
- abdominal cramping/pain
- muscle aches/pain
Anyone can get salmonella poisoning, and in most cases it doesn’t go beyond general discomfort and a missed day of work or two. But people with weakened immune systems, like young children and the elderly can end up hospitalized.
(It’s important to note here that other diseases like the flu can also hospitalize these groups.)
Why Are We Targeting Reptiles?
According to the CDC, households should avoid having a pet reptile (especially turtles) until the children are over the age of 5. Those with weak immune systems and/or over the age of 65 are also at risk, and “should not handle or touch amphibians, reptiles or their environment.” Which makes sense — salmonellosis is dangerous to each of those parties.
But reptiles are not the only pets that pose a health risk to unborn and young children (if you don’t believe me, click the links).
- Cats – toxoplasmosis (birth defects), bartonellosis (Cat Scratch Fever)
- Dogs – cryptosporidium (diarrhea), leptospirosis (liver/kidney failure, meningitis)
- Birds – psittacosis (Parrot Fever)
- Fish – Adventurous toddlers can drown in unsupervised fish tanks.
- Horses – Horseback riding while pregnant can lead to miscarriage. Falling from the saddle or getting kicked can also hurt a fetus.
Yet the media rarely villainizes these pets…
What Else Carries Salmonella?
There’s an estimated 2-4 million cases of salmonella every year in the US, and about 50,000 of those are from reptiles. Doing the math, only 5 of every 200 salmonella cases are reptile-caused.
That means the other 1.95-3.95 million people with salmonella got it from:
- Eggs (i.e. cookie dough)
- Other pets
Fortunately, there’s about 318.9 million people in the US, so your chances of getting salmonella even from food are still pretty slim. Meanwhile keep taking your multivitamins and follow the tips below! 😉
How to Prevent Salmonella
- Take your pet to the vet. About 60-90% of reptiles carry salmonella. But did you know your vet can prescribe medicine to get rid of the bacteria? All it takes is a simple fecal exam to check. Of course, salmonella can come back, so it’s a good idea to get a new exam done every year just to be safe. And since you’ll be taking your pet for its yearly check up anyway, it’s no extra hassle.
- Wash your hands often. No, that doesn’t mean use hand sanitizer. The FDA has cautioned the public against buying over-the-counter hand sanitizers that claim to kill salmonella bacteria, as these claims have not been evaluated. So get out the soap and scrub!
- Clean up reptile poo every day. Salmonella bacteria get excreted via your pet’s poo. If your pet steps in the poo, the bacteria get transferred to you during handling. I also like to give my reptiles an occasional bath in a weak chlorhexidine solution just in case.
- Clean your reptile’s enclosure regularly. Unless your enclosure is bioactive, you should be doing a deep clean of your reptile enclosure(s) about once a quarter or every 3 months. You will need to use strong veterinary-grade cleaners like F10SC and Chlorhexidine to kill salmonella bacteria.
- Don’t play with reptiles and eat at the same time. Put the reptiles away, wash your hands with soap, THEN eat.
- Keep your house clean. Cross-contamination is a big reason behind salmonella infection. If you let your reptile free-roam at all, it’s a good idea to get your floors and upholstery steam-cleaned once a year. Bleach and ammonia kill salmonella bacteria, as well as the veterinary cleaners mentioned above. Despite what some claim, vinegar is NOT effective unless used at or near full concentration.
- Be especially careful with pet turtles. Aquatic turtles are frequently associated with salmonella outbreaks, and as they don’t particularly appreciate being handled, they’re best left in their ponds. Make sure you have a good filter, change the cartridges on time, and clean the tank regularly with a disinfectant (don’t forget to rinse well).
To conclude, reptiles and salmonella are about as big of a problem as cookie dough and salmonella. That being said, you probably come into contact with your reptiles more often than you eat cookie dough, so your likelihood of getting salmonella poisoning via that route is higher.
So while it’s nothing to freak out over, salmonella not something to take lightly, either. Be careful, practice excellent hygiene, and enjoy your reptiles. <3
Thanks for pointing that out — I should re-check that article. I believe the point I was trying to make is that hand sanitizers aren’t effective against salmonella bacteria specifically, but I will need to check that as well. Thanks for pointing out the change in CDC recommendations as well.
This post was written ages ago, and as I have gained further experience I agree with your points about disinfecting reptile enclosures. These days I only recommend disinfecting enclosures 1x/quarter at most often, during quarantine, or in the case of particularly unpleasant messes.
Also I read the article you posted and didn’t say exactly that hand sanitizers are ineffective. Just the FDA cautions against overstatements about companies that produce them. They cannot sterilize your hands. They do reduce pathogenic bacteria, and this is their goal. A healthy human can cope with small numbers of pathogenic bacteria without any problem. And those sanitizers are useful in case washing your hands isn’t an immediate option anyway.
Actually recently the CDC has changed its recommendations about preventing salmonella transmission from reptiles and doesn’t state that reptiles should be removed from homes with pregnant women or young children. The AVMA since long ago didn’t recognize such a drastic measure also. From what I understand and statistics tell, reptile-related salmonellosis is an actual threat mostly for children, and rarely it afects other groups of humans. Proper hand washing after handling animals, not allowing reptiles in food preparation areas and supervision especially of children around those animals is all it takes to prevent any transmission. I don’t support bathing animals and enclosures every few days in disinfectant. Most disinfectants are toxic for humans if overused, imagine how toxic they are for much smaller animals like most reptiles. As you said also, turtle tanks are impossible to get disinfected because of the needs of the biology of the filter. I would also add bioactive geckos tanks and similar tanks in the same category. But for welfare reasons I would say that most types of tanks shouldn’t be disinfected so often. A lot of reptiles liek snakes and skinks for example recognize familiar places by scent, and obliterating their home scent every while would stress them. Many reptiles like leopard geckos scent-mark, and actually they will urinate/defecate more in a recently cleaned tank because their signature scent has gone away. Small mammals do the same thing, and no one is bleaching their tanks/cages every few days for that reason. But scent plays a smaller role even in other reptiles like bearded dragons. So no, disinfecting a eptile’t tank extremely often isn’t normal. Think about it: reptiles poop the least of all the commonly kept pets and get disinfected the most.