Alberta Health Services is reporting a cluster of Salmonella infections linked to pet reptiles. In many ways, this isn’t really remarkable (unless you’re one of the people who’s infected). Reptile contact is a very well-known risk factor for acquiring Salmonella, especially in kids.

So far, 12 infections have been reported. Reported cases are always going to be an under-estimate of actual cases… perhaps by a factor of 5-10 (or greater), so more infected people are presumably out there.

There’s no link to any specific event, pet store or other common source. Cases are from homes with snakes, and infection has been linked to both snakes and feeder rodents.

  • Feeder rodents are rodents that are purchased as snake food. They’re often sold frozen, and have been the source of large Salmonella outbreaks in the past. If the link in this outbreak is to both snakes and feeder rodents, feeder rodents are presumably the root cause, since feeding snakes infected rodents can lead to infection of the snakes, and people can be infected from handling the snake or the rodent.

A big concern here is the scope of the problem. Feeder rodent-associated outbreaks can be large and widespread if the supplier is a big one that sells lots of product. Presumably the source is being investigated and hopefully addressed as best as possible.  It can be very difficult to control Salmonella in feeder rodent production facilities due to many factors.

Regardless, this is yet another reminder for reptile owners and handlers (and others) about some important basic preventive measures when it comes to Salmonella:

  • High risk people (kids less than 5 years of age, elderly individuals, pregnant women and immunocompromised individuals) should avoid reptile contact.  That also means reptiles shouldn’t be in the house, since indirect exposure to Salmonella in these situations is common.
  • Feeder rodents should be handled like you’d handle raw meat for human consumption – assume they’re contaminated, avoid cross-contamination with human food or food prep surfaces, and handle them with care.
  • Assume all reptiles are shedding Salmonella in their feces and that their enclosures are contaminated.
  • Wash your hands after contact with reptiles, feeder rodents, reptile enclosures, or anything within their enclosures.
  • If you get sick, make sure your physician knows you have contact (direct or indirect) with reptiles.