By Dr. Becker
Right around this time each year there are warnings in the media about pet frogs and turtles transmitting salmonella bacteria to children.
According to CDC public health advisor Shauna Mettee Zarecki, “Amphibians and reptiles should never be kept in homes with children less than 5 years old or with people who have immune deficiencies.” This advice also extends to day care centers and nursing homes.
Like in 2010 and 2011, this year’s warning once again identifies African dwarf frogs as the source of a nationwide outbreak of salmonella infections, primarily in children.
Aquarium Water is Primary Source of Contamination
The Salmonella Typhimurium Outbreak Investigation Team, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has been investigating the impact of contact with African dwarf frogs on human health.
The team looked at an outbreak of the typhimurium salmonella strain from 2008 to 2011 and identified 376 cases in 44 states. About 70 percent of those infected were kids under 10 years of age, and 29 percent of patients – mostly children – were hospitalized. About 60 percent of the 114 patients the team interviewed reported exposure to frogs. Of the patients who knew what type of frog they’d been exposed to, about 80 percent identified the African dwarf frog.
The conclusion of the investigators was that most of the children got sick not through direct contact with the frogs, but through indirect exposure like handling aquarium water. The team stressed that reptile and amphibian habitats should be washed outside to avoid contaminating sinks or bathtubs. The investigators also pointed out that aquarium water can grow increasingly contaminated over time.
The team tested water samples from aquariums in affected patients’ homes, in pet stores and at a day care center. In 2011, the source of infected African dwarf frogs was identified as Blue Lobster Farms in Madera County, California. Even though the discovery was made two years ago, frogs from this breeder could still be in people’s homes, since these little guys can live up to 18 years.
Keeping Your Household Safe
People who keep reptiles and amphibians should be aware that bacteria normal to the species can cause infection in humans. Many of these animals can make wonderful pets as long as you recognize the risks associated with potential bacterial contamination.
The following handling tips will help keep everyone in the family safe from infection:
- Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after handling any amphibian or reptile, or anything your pet has come in contact with – especially aquarium water.
- Closely supervise any children who handle amphibians, reptiles or their habitats, and help the little ones wash their hands properly.
- Children five and under should not handle these pets or their habitats.
- Elderly members of the household or anyone with a compromised immune system should also avoid contact with these pets and their habitats.
- If a member of the family develops the symptoms of salmonella infection, contact a health care provider and advise them of any contact with reptiles or amphibians.
- Amphibians and reptiles should not be kept in childcare centers where hands-on activities are encouraged, nor should they be housed in children's bedrooms.
- Don't allow these pets to roam around your house, and especially not in food and drink preparation areas.
- When cleaning a reptile or amphibian habitat, wear disposable gloves and if possible, do the cleaning outdoors. Don't clean the habitat near food or drink preparation areas, sources of food or drinking water, or the kitchen sink. Discard the gloves after cleaning the habitat, and wash your hands and any exposed areas of your arms thoroughly.
- Don't bathe these pets in the kitchen sink or near any food or drink preparation areas. If you bathe your reptiles or amphibians in the bathtub or use it for habitat cleaning, thoroughly clean and disinfect it afterward to kill any bacteria that may have transferred to tub surfaces.
- Reduce the shedding of salmonella bacteria by reducing environmental stress. House turtles and other reptile or amphibian pets in an optimal environment, with appropriate water quality and filtration, cage size, temperature, UV light and feed species-appropriate nutrition.
- Avoid purchasing African dwarf frogs and juvenile turtles (smaller than four inches), and don’t support street vendors participating in the exploitation of exotic animals.
For more information visit the CDC’s Reptiles, Amphibians and Salmonella page.
Signs of a Salmonella Infection
Infection with salmonella bacteria can cause fever, abdominal cramping, vomiting and diarrhea. Symptoms usually appear within 12 to 72 hours after infection, and the illness typically runs from four to seven days. Infection is diagnosed through a stool sample.
Many people are able to fight off the infection, but thousands are hospitalized with symptoms each year. If the bacteria spreads from the intestines to the bloodstream and other organs in the body, death can result unless prompt treatment is given.
The elderly and people with weakened immune systems are more likely to become severely ill from salmonella infection, as are young children whose immune systems are still developing.