A recent report in the Journal of Pediatrics (Tabarani et al 2010) describes a case of infection around the brain, at the site of a previous subdural hematoma, in a five-month-old child. Four reptiles (all bearded dragons) were present in the child’s foster household, but the foster parent reported that the baby did not have any contact with them. Salmonella Houtenae was identified as the cause of the infection.  The reptiles were an obvious potential source given what we know about Salmonella and reptiles, the unusual Salmonella strain that was isolated from the baby, and the lack of any other obvious risk factor. All previous human infections caused by this type of Salmonella have been associated with reptiles, and all occurred in young children. Unfortunately, the reptiles in this case were euthanized before they could be tested.

This report highlights a few important points.

  • Direct contact with reptiles is not needed to cause an infection. There are many reports of people (especially infants) being infected by Salmonella from a pet reptile despite them having no direct contact with the animal. The common statement that ‘there’s no risk to my child because my child is never allowed to touch the animal‘ is completely false.
  • Reptiles should not be in households with children less than five years of age. In this report, the child was in a foster home.  In some jurisdictions, reptiles are banned from foster homes for this very reason.
  • The majority of reptiles carry Salmonella. This is expected and impossible to prevent. That’s why people at high risk of serious infection (e.g. young children) should not be around them. It’s also why euthanasia of the reptiles in this case was highly questionable. Why kill the lizards for carrying a bug that we assume they (and most other reptiles) normally carry? Finding them a new home that doesn’t have high risk people would be more appropriate.

Image: Central Bearded Dragon (Pogona vitticeps) (photo credit: Eigene Arbeit, 2007)