Reptiles are common pets, and the risk of transmission of Salmonella from reptiles is fairly well known. Most of the attention regarding Salmonella in these cases involves direct contact with reptiles, especially turtles. However, both direct and indirect contact with other reptiles also carry risk, as can contact with other animals. A recent report about a 2005/2006 outbreak of salmonellosis in 4 people from Minnesota highlights this:
- Three affected people were from the same junior high classroom, which contained pet snakes.
- Two of the people reported contact with the snakes, and one other student from the school did not handle the snakes but was often in the classroom, while the fourth infected student had a sibling in the class.
- The same Salmonella Typhimurium strain was found in the classroom snakes, various classroom surfaces and vacuum-packed rodents that were purchased over the internet and fed to the snakes.
- Presumably, the snakes became infected from the rodents, and the students became infected from handling the snakes, or from touching contaminated surfaces in the classroom (they reportedly had no contact with the rodents).
A broader US investigation identified 7 other people infected with the same Salmonella strain from handling vacuum-packed rodents. The outbreak was eventually traced back to the (unlicensed) rodent supply facility.
Pets can be educational and entertaining in classrooms, however some pets are better than others. Educational value, ability to properly (and humanely) care for the pet, and classroom safety need to be considered when determining what pet might be appropriate. Careful consideration of measures to reduce the risk of disease transmission is required. The teacher in this case reported that he did not know snakes could carry Salmonella, that he did not wash his hands after cleaning the cage, and that he did not tell students to wash their hands after touching the snake, so it is clear that there was inadequate consideration to these issues.
This case report also highlights the potential risks of reptile ownership in households. Reptiles are high risk for Salmonella, and not appropriate for all households. Good hygiene should be used when handling reptiles, their environment and their food. More information about reptiles can be found in the Turtles information sheet on the Worms & Germs Resources page.
Image: Corn Snake (Pantherophis guttatus) by Mike Wesemann