Owners of Pet Reptiles Warned of Salmonella Risk
Albany, February 5, 1996 -- State Health Commissioner Barbara A. DeBuono, M.D., said today that the recent death of an Indiana infant from salmonella poisoning, possibly linked to contact with a pet iguana, underscores the continuing health threat presented by these pets, especially to the very young and the elderly.
Dr. DeBuono said Indiana health authorities are still trying to identify the exact cause of the three-month old boy's salmonella death but indications are that it could have resulted from someone handling the family's pet iguana and then touching or preparing food for the infant. She noted that New York State has received reports of a number of salmonella cases associated with contact with pet iguanas in the past several years.
"It seems clear to us that infants are being infected without having direct contact with the reptile," said Dr. DeBuono. "Disease may be spread from adults and older siblings who handle a pet reptile and then fail to wash their hands before feeding a child. Alternatively, an iguana let loose in the home may contaminate kitchen counters or dishes."
"We cannot stress enough the importance of washing your hands after handling these pets. Adults also should ensure that iguanas are kept out of the reach of small children at all times and that older children be supervised when handling these reptiles," the Commissioner added.
Salmonella bacteria commonly causes diarrhea and fever. Young children and the elderly are at risk for severe effects from this disease. Although most cases of Salmonella infection are associated with undercooked chicken or eggs, pets have been known to carry Salmonella bacteria and occasionally transmit it to young children. In the 1970's pet turtles were associated with thousands of cases of salmonellosis in young children throughout the United States.
Dr. DeBuono said the Department issued a health alert in the spring of 1994 on the association between reptiles and salmonellosis to 1,300 pet stores statewide, instructing operators to post a notice prominently in their businesses and to make sure a copy was provided to everyone who bought a pet reptile. The health advisory stresses that strict hygiene be practiced in households where reptiles are kept as pets and recommends that reptiles are not suitable pets for young children, pregnant women, immune-compromised individuals or the elderly. In addition to practicing careful handwashing after touching the pet or its cage, owners should not allow their pet reptiles to crawl on food counters or tables. Pet owners should contact their local health department if they have questions.
Dr. DeBuono noted that almost half of the reptile-associated cases reported to the Health Department in the last several years have occurred in infants less than one year old and more than 20 of the infected children required hospitalization. She added that reptiles have had an increasing popularity as pets in recent years, with more than 2-1/2 million imported annually into the United States. She said the exporting country, usually in South or Central America, is only required to issue a certificate of health for each lot shipped. Many if not all, of the reptiles come into this country already infected. It is estimated that between 36 percent and 77 percent of the lizard family, of which iguanas are members, harbor the Salmonella bacteria in their intestinal tracts.
2/5/96-12 OPAContact: Claudia Hutton, Director, Public Affairs (518) 474-7354
New York State Department of Health Posted 4/8/96