HedgehogWhen I talk about hospital visitation animals, I often use hedgehogs as an example of a novelty critter that we want to keep out of high risk situations. They’re interesting, but is there any advantage f seeing a hedgehog vs interacting with a properly trained visitation dog? Probably not. When you add in the greater potential for hedgehogs to be carrying things like Salmonella, it’s pretty clear they shouldn’t be in high risk situations.

Along those lines, a recent paper in Zoonoses and Public Health (Anderson et al 2016) describes a multistate outbreak of salmonellosis associated with pet hedgehogs.

Twenty-six (26) people infected with the outbreak strain of Salmonella Typhimurium were identified in 12 states. Most of those people reported contact with hedgehogs. As ever, the real number of cases was probably much higher, since a large percentage of people who get infected with Salmonella don’t get diagnosed.

  • Not surprisingly, kids were over-represented. The ages ranged from <1 to 91 years of age, with a median of 15 years of age.
  • 35% of cases were hospitalized. That’s probably a bit higher than the average outbreak report. More concerning, there was one death attributed to the infection.
  • When information about hedgehog purchase was available, 8/11 people had purchased the pet in the past 1-5 weeks. That’s pretty consistent with other outbreaks, where recently obtained pets are highest risk. Whether that’s because hedgehogs are more likely to shed Salmonella during that initial period, people have closer contact with them when they are new pets, or other factors isn’t known.
  • Limited hedgehog health information was available, but 3/6 had diarrhea before the person’s illness.
  • Various high-risk behaviours were identified, such as bathing hedgehogs in the family bathtub.
  • Traceback of where the hedgehogs came from didn’t identify any consistent source.  If a point source can be identified, the problem can potentially be controlled (e.g. closing down or eradicating Salmonella from a central facility or source breeder).  In an outbreak like this with no identifiable source, control is much more difficult, so that’s a concern.

This report doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t own hedgehogs. However, hedgehogs should be considered high risk pets, like reptiles, and kept away from high risk people (e.g. kids under 5 years of age). Like reptiles, good basic hygiene practices should be used to reduce the risk of Salmonella exposure. That’s probably particularly true with new pets. While it hasn’t been well-studied, it is likely that most pet species carry more infectious agents when they are purchased/adopted, because they typically come from higher risk facilities (e.g. more animals, more stress, lots of mixing) and can naturally eliminate many pathogens over time when they get into a lower risk household. The initial new pet period is also the time when people tend to have the most contact with pets, especially pocket pets, before the novelty factor starts to wear off.

Another thing to consider with this report is the fact that diarrhea occurred in the hedgehog before the person in some situations. For any pet owner, diarrhea or other illness should be a flag that the pet poses a greater risk, and more precautions should be taken with any diarrheic animal.

A lot of common sense goes a long way… and handwashing can prevent a lot of problems!