Salmonella Infection from Frogs, Turtles and Lizards

(as well as other amphibians and reptiles)

Reptiles and amphibians are popular pets with many families. Turtles, frogs, iguanas, snakes, geckos, horned toads, salamanders and chameleons are colorful, quiet and often kept as pets. These animals frequently carry bacteria called Salmonella that can cause serious illness in people. Salmonella can spread by either direct or indirect contact with amphibians (e.g., frogs), reptiles (e.g., turtles, lizards or snakes) or their droppings. Salmonella infections can also result from having contact with reptile or amphibian environments, including the water from containers or aquariums where they live. Persons under 5 years of age are more likely to develop severe illness. Parents are warned to keep frogs and turtles away from young children.

What is salmonellosis?

Salmonellosis is an infection with bacteria called Salmonella, which generally affects the intestines and occasionally the bloodstream. It is one of the more common causes of diarrheal illness with an estimated several thousand cases occurring in New York State each year. Most cases occur in the summer months.

What are the symptoms of salmonellosis?

People infected with Salmonella may experience mild or severe diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever and occasionally vomiting. Symptoms generally appear one to three days after contact with Salmonella bacteria. Young children, elderly persons and those with weakened immune systems are more likely to develop severe, and sometimes fatal, illness from the infection. Therefore, families with children 5 years old or younger in the home should avoid keeping reptiles and amphibians as pets.

How do people get Salmonella infections from reptiles and amphibians?

Reptiles and amphibians might have Salmonella germs on their bodies even when they appear healthy and clean. Salmonella can spread by either direct or indirect contact with amphibians (e.g., frogs), reptiles (e.g., turtles, lizards or snakes) or their droppings. If, after touching or handling an amphibian or reptile, you touch your hands to your mouth without thoroughly washing them first, you can infect yourself with Salmonella. The germs can also get on cages, aquariums, terrariums, the water reptiles and amphibians live or swim in and other containers that house them. Anything that reptiles and amphibians touch should be considered to be possibly contaminated with Salmonella.

How do I reduce the risk of Salmonella infection from reptiles and amphibians?

  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water immediately after touching a reptile or amphibian, or anything in the area where they live and roam. Use hand sanitizer if soap and water are not readily available.
  • Adults should always supervise hand washing for young children.
  • Do not let children younger than 5 years of age handle or touch reptiles or amphibians or anything in the area where reptiles or amphibians live and roam, including water from containers or aquariums.
  • Keep reptiles and amphibians out of homes with children younger than 5 years old or people with weakened immune systems.
  • Reptiles and amphibians should not be kept in child care centers, nursery schools or other facilities with children younger than 5 years old.
  • Do not touch your mouth after handling reptiles or amphibians and do not eat or drink around these animals.
  • Do not let reptiles or amphibians roam freely throughout the house or in areas where food or drink is prepared, served or stored, such as kitchens, pantries or outdoor patios.
  • Habitats and their contents should be carefully cleaned outside of the home. Use disposable gloves when cleaning and do not dispose of water in sinks used for food preparation or for obtaining drinking water.
  • Do not bathe animals or wash their habitats in your kitchen sink. If bathtubs are used for these purposes, they should be thoroughly cleaned with soap and water afterward. Be sure to clean any surfaces that have been in contact with reptiles or amphibians. If desired for added protection, these surfaces can then also be sanitized and rinsed using a registered disinfectant or sanitizer product. Disinfectants and sanitizers are pesticide products regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). You should verify that the product is labeled for household use to kill bacteria on hard, non-porous surfaces that you intend on disinfecting.
  • If registered disinfectants are not available, a chlorine bleach solution may be used – add about 1 tablespoon of bleach to a quart (4 cups) of water. Dispose of the used bleach solution when it becomes dirty. To sanitize hard surfaces, thoroughly wet the surface with the sanitizer solution and let stand for 5 minutes, or as long as directed on the product label. Then rinse the surface with water to remove any sanitizer residue.
  • Do not place reptiles and amphibians in the bath tub or kiddie pool used by children.
  • Wash any clothing a reptile or amphibian might have touched.

Are there any restrictions about owning amphibians or reptiles?

Since 1975, it has been illegal in the United States to sell or distribute turtles with shells that measure less than 4 inches in length. This size was chosen because small children are more likely to treat smaller turtles as toys and put them in their mouths. Despite this ban, such turtles are still found in some pet stores, flea markets, with street vendors or sold over the Internet. In addition, children still catch wild turtles, lizards and frogs and bring them home to keep as pets. Whether purchased or caught in the wild, a reptile or amphibian can carry Salmonella and might not be the best choice of a pet for your family, especially if there are young children or persons with weakened immune systems in the household.

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