.A five-month-old Britich baby was hospitalized with salmonellosis that was presumably acquired from a family pet. The baby developed severe diarrhea and was rushed to hospital. Fortunately, the child has recovered, something that's far from assured in such cases, since salmonellosis can be life-threatening in infants.
As expected, an investigation followed the diagnosis of salmonellosis. Typically, these investigations focus on food and animal contact, and since this family had a bearded dragon (see picture) and tortoises, the investigation honed in on the reptiles. Reptiles are high risk for Salmonella shedding and are commonly implicated in human infections. Further, the type of Salmonella that infected the infant, S. Pomona, is commonly associated with reptiles. It doesn't sound like they've confirmed that the same strain of Salmonella was present in the reptiles, but I assume that testing is underway.
Reptiles should not be present in households with infants. It doesn't matter if the animal never leaves its enclosure, because while the critter may not leave the enclosure, Salmonella will.
In low risk households (households without kids less than five years of age, elderly persons, pregnant women or immunocompromised individuals), good management practices can be used to minimize the risk of transmission of Salmonella, but given the potentially fatal nature of salmonellosis in infants and other high-risk individuals, these precautions are not adequate in high-risk households. While reptiles can be great pets, they're just not worth the risk in some situations.
I've been slow getting around to this topic, which has been covered elsewhere (on Barfblog), but it's an interesting report and one that's still worth discussing. The report from Ireland involves diagnosis of botulism in a baby that was associated with a pet turtle and/or the turtle's feed.
Botulism is a very serious disease caused by a toxin produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. Typically, botulism occurs when a person (or animal) eats food that was contaminated with the bacterium and then was stored improperly, allowing the bacterium to grow and produce its potent neurotoxins. The other form of botulism, one that is largely restricted to infants, occurs when the botulism bacterium itself is swallowed and starts to produce its toxins while it's in the intestinal tract. It rarely occurs in older individuals because their natural intestinal bacterial population helps suppress overgrowth of the C. botulinum.
Not much information is available about the case in Ireland. It involved quite a rare strain of C. botulinum, Type E, and there's no information provided about how the link to the turtle was made. I assume it was toxicoinfectious botulism, whereby the infant ingested the bacterium (as opposed to eating something already containing the toxin) but the reports aren't clear. Fortunately, the child is recovering, since botulism can be fatal.
Botulism isn't high on my list of potential infectious diseases you can get from reptiles, but it can happen - and it has the potential to be very, very bad. Salmonella is the main focus of reptile-associated diseases, but this report should be taken as a reminder that there are other diseases of concern as well, and that reptiles are inappropriate pets for households with children under five years of age.
A paper in the Journal of Clinical Microbiology back in 2000 described a case of Pasteurella multocida meningitis in a one-month-old baby that was linked to a pet cat. Pasteurella multocida is a bacterium that can be commonly found in the mouth of healthy dogs and cats - 90% or more of healthy cats may have it in their mouth. The organism can cause infection in humans. These cases are usually associated with close contact with animals, such as bites, scratches and licking wounds. In this case, there was reportedly little contact between the baby and the cat, yet the same P. multocida strain was found in both. The cat was healthy and the bacterium was found in its mouth. There was no clear route of transmission (like a bite or a scratch), however unidentified contact with the cat or (more likely) indirect transmission of the bacterium from the cat to the baby by another person are possible.
This is a good example of the unpredictable nature of zoonotic infections. There was no reported underlying disease that made this baby more susceptible to infection. It's just that being very young (or very old, or immunocompromised) means you're more likely to develop infections from the myriad bacteria that are present all around us. While this infection might not have been preventable, we need to think about good routine precautions involving contact of pets with babies.
- Keep them apart (but not completely). Pets should not be allowed to lick or have other close contact with a young baby. That being said, household pets need to be around the baby to learn to interact with the child safely, and recognize the baby as a member of the family, but supervision is needed and direct contact should be avoided.
- Good hygiene should be used around pets and babies (individually and together). Hands are the main source of disease transmission and regular hand washing is a great infection control tool.