A recent paper in Zoonoses and Public Health (Whitten et al, 2014) describes reptile-associated salmonellosis cases in Minnesota between 1996-2011. Like similar reports, the data underestimate the problem because it’s thought that for every documented case, approximately 30 cases go undiagnosed. Regardless, there are some useful findings.

Twelve to 30 cases of reptile-associated salmonellosis were identified in the state each year. That represented  about 3.5% of all sporadic (non-outbreak-associated) cases.

  • This is lower than is often reported, but Minnesota is also known to have one of the lowest pet ownership rates among states, which might account for this discrepancy, at least in part.

Kids bore the brunt of disease (as is normal), with the median age of victims being 11 years. 17% were less than one year of age, 31% were less than five years of age, and 67% were under 20.

  • The very young kids presumably had little or no direct contact with reptiles. This highlights the fact that living in the house with a reptile is a risk factor, even if there’s no direct contact. That’s why reptiles shouldn’t be in the house if there are high risk people present (i.e. kids less than five years of age, elderly individuals, pregnant women, immunocompromised individuals). Just trying to keep the high risk people from having contact with the reptile isn’t enough.

23% of cases had to be hospitalized. Fifteen (5%) had invasive infections, where Salmonella made it out of the intestinal tract and into the rest of the body.

  • These types of infection are a major concern, and the report included one case where the bacterium was found in the cerebrospinal fluid (indicating the person presumably had Salmonella meningitis).

Fortunately, none died.

Over half of the people who got sick and who were asked (i.e. not including the young kids) reported knowing that reptiles can be sources of Salmonella.

Almost half reported exposure to a lizard, with 20% reporting snake contact, 19% reporting turtle contact and some reporting contact with more than one type of reptile.

A quarter of those who reported turtle contact and indicated the size of the turtle said the turtle was less than four inches in length.

  • That’s relevant because it’s illegal to sell turtles that small in the US.  The rule was put in place due to the increased risk of kids handling small turtles and getting exposed to Salmonella. The finding isn’t surprising, though, since this law is widely ignored.

Some people consented to having their reptile tested. 86% of the tested reptiles were shedding Salmonella at the time the follow-up was performed. 96% of those were the same strain that caused disease in the person.

Overall, not a lot has changed, which is concerning. There’s a risk of disease with any pet contact, but reptiles are undeniably high risk. We’ll never completely eliminate the problem, but logical pet ownership and animal management are needed to reduce the risk. A good start is getting young kids away from reptiles. Reptiles can make great pets… but not for young kids, and not without some risk.