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Salmonella Prevention – Guidelines for Reptile and Amphibian Owners

Salmonella Zoonotic diseases (those that can pass from animals to people) such Salmonella bacteria infections are a potential concern in the keeping of any pet. Many people associate Salmonella with reptiles, but nearly any animal, including dogs, cats and birds, may harbor this troublesome micro-organism. Handling an animal that carries Salmonella will not cause an infection; the bacteria are harmful to people only if ingested.

Note: This article is intended for general informational purposes and is not meant to replace a doctor’s advice. Please consult your physician or veterinarian for specific information concerning disease prevention and treatment. 

Avoiding Salmonella: Knowledge is Key

Fortunately, Salmonella infections can be avoided by following a few simple rules. Healthy individuals have a relatively low risk of becoming infected; infants, and people with compromised immune systems, are more susceptible. Please see the CDC’s website, below, for further information.

If we are to safely enjoy our pets, it is important that we are aware of any associated health concerns.  Once this is accomplished, we will be able maintain a reasonable perspective, i.e. that disease does not usually follow pet ownership. For example, dogs are capable of harboring at least 17 harmful microorganisms, yet the vast majority of dog-owners are untroubled by health problems.

The same can be said of reptile owners – Salmonella infections are not typical. However, it is important to understand that Salmonella bacteria are likely present in all reptile and amphibian digestive tracts.  While the bacteria rarely cause illnesses in their hosts, they are shed in the feces and may then be encountered by people.

How is Salmonella Transferred?

It is important that pet owners understand how bacteria are transferred from animals to people.  When a reptile or amphibian contacts fecal material in its terrarium, the bacteria may spread to the animal’s skin. Thereafter, the bacteria can be spread to various surfaces that appear “clean” to the eye (i.e. fecal material is not visible). Animal skin, water bowls, substrates, cage decorations, and surfaces upon which animals have walked (floors, etc.) may all harbor bacteria that have been shed in feces.

People can become infected and/or spread the bacteria to others if they handle a reptile (or its cage, etc.) and then eat, or touch surfaces that come in contact with food, before washing properly. Young children are especially at risk, since fingers often find their way into mouths.

When is Salmonella Transferred?

Salmonella bacteria is most commonly (and, from a “bacterial” point of view, effectively!) transferred to hands and other areas of skin during cage and water bowl cleaning, feeding, and when pets are handled. Hands must always be washed well after these activities (please see CDC Guidelines, below).

Cleaning Cages and Surfaces

Reptile enclosures, food bowls, cage accessories and the like should be cleaned with Nolvasan, a reptile-safe commercial cleaner, or a solution of 1 cup of bleach per gallon of water. Do not use Nolvasan in amphibian terrariums.

Tools used in terrariums should be soaked in the bleach solution described above before being re-used in the same or another enclosure. Be sure to remove feces and other organic material before soaking. Rinse tools well after removal from the soak solution.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Guidelines

Softshell Turtle in ginseng shopThe following guidelines have been prepared by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. For additional information, please see the CDC’s website.

  • Adults should always supervise hand-washing for young children.
  • Do not let children younger than 5 years of age handle or touch reptiles or amphibians, or anything in the area where they live and roam, including water from containers or aquariums.
  • Reptiles and amphibians should not be kept in homes where children younger than 5 years old or people with weakened immune systems reside.
  • Reptiles and amphibians should not be kept in child care centers, nursery schools or other facilities serving children below 5 years of age.
  • Do not touch your mouth after handling reptiles or amphibians and do not eat or drink around animals.
  • Do not let reptiles or amphibians roam freely in homes or in areas where food or drink is prepared, served, or stored.
  • Pet habitats and their contents should be carefully cleaned outside of the home. Use disposable gloves when cleaning and do not dispose of water in sinks used for food preparation or for obtaining drinking water.
  • Do not bathe animals or clean their habitats in kitchen sinks. If bathtubs are used for these purposes, they should be thoroughly cleaned afterward. Use bleach to disinfect a tub or other place where terrariums are cleaned.
  • Wash clothing that has been in contact with pets.
  • Use soap or a disinfectant to thoroughly clean any surfaces that have been in contact with reptiles or amphibians.

This information is not designed to discourage reptile and amphibian ownership… with a bit of care, the most commonly-encountered problems can be effectively managed.



Further Reading

Dwarf Clawed Frogs and Salmonella

Disease Concerns for Pet Owners (Arizona Exotic Animal Hospital)

Zoonotic Diseases and Organisms

Avoiding Salmonella and Micobacteria: Aqua Gloves

Softshell Turtle in ginseng shop By E8976-Namdaemun-Turtles-sold-in-ginseng-shop.jpg: Vmenkov derivative work: Vmenkov (E8976-Namdaemun-Turtles-sold-in-ginseng-shop.jpg) [CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons


  1. avatar

    Hello Frank,

    I am curious as to what percentage of reptile owners truly follow the CDC guidelines to the T. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t, for example, use disposable gloves during enclosure/spot cleaning(of course I make sure to wash my hands afterward). I don’t know of too many families who got rid of their reptile pets when they raised kids. Theirs a picture of Bindi Irwin with a fistful of Burmese pythons as a toddler. I’ve started doing some educational presentations using my collection, so have to be particularly careful esp. with kids. I make sure to clean the reptiles before I take them along(scrubbing/rinsing with a bit of soap doesn’t seem to harm them so long as it is kept away from the head). And of course have hand sanitizer to use after handling.
    The question posed by most people is if contact with reptiles/amphibians is a more likely source of salmonella than other animals(since reptiles invariably have salmonella) or whether they pose the same risk as far as contraction of zoonoses. No one suggests getting rid of a dog or a cat, is this an objective view that reptile/amphibians are more likely to transmit a serious zoonose?(it seems salmonella is the only zoonose captive reptiles/amphibians are likely to transmit)


    • avatar

      Hello Joseph,

      Nice to hear from you again. I imagine most people will continue as they have been doing assuming they’ve had no problems, and that the recommendations will become more commonplace with the next generation of keepers. When I started in zoos, gloves were not even in use among mammal keepers; today primate keepers clean while in what appear to be “space suits”. Once guidelines are established, zoos, doctors, etc. must comply, not only for health reasons but also to limit liability. This has resulted in some sad situations…some years ago, NY City schools prohibited the use of reptiles in any classroom setting, even if handling was not allowed. But there’s no way around such things.

      Reptiles can transmit other diseases, but such is not common. They are more likely to Dogs and other pets can carry Salmonella and a host of other zoonoses, but Salmonella is not normally carried by healthy individuals, as it seems to be by herps. An infectious disease doctor I spoke with in NYC said that he most commonly saw infections from cat scratches and mico-bacteria infections from tropical fish aquariums among his patients.

      Please let me know if you need any further information. Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  2. avatar

    Hello Frank,

    Certainly in the case of primates their are many particularly dangerous zoonoses that can be transmitted.

    My understanding is that cat scratch disease and some other zoonoses transmitted by cats/dogs are relatively benign…that is, people usually don’t become seriously ill from them. Salmonella is interesting in that it is pretty much ubiquitous. That is-you can get it a variety of things almost every household brings in(raw meat, produce, etc.) yet it can be a more serious illness.

    CDC reccomends, for example, that families with elderly folk, children under 5 not own reptiles/amphibians, baby chicks, and ducklings. Certainly no one is recommending one to get rid of their dog or cat.


    • avatar

      Hello Joseph

      Thanks for the feedback. Some can be quite serious, although as you mention not nearly so commonly as occurs in the case of Salmonella. One problem is the recent trend towards highly resistant strains of strep and staph – this is most commonly seen in hospitals, and related infections from dogs and cats are often limited to the skin, but there is some cause for concern. Crypto can also be quite resilient in some cases, and pregnant women have long been advised to avoid working around cats due to the potential for toxoplasmosis infections. Unfortunately, any infection is of grave concern to people undergoing chemo, HIV patients, and others with compromised immune systems. I always advise folks to seek their doctor’s advice, as every situation is unique.

      Please let me know if you need any further information. Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  3. avatar

    Hello Frank,

    Interesting stuff. Yes Toxoplasmosis is a big one, but again in this case the advisory is not to get rid of the cats but simply to have someone else clean the litterbox (the assumption is that cats and dogs are clean enough of animals that minimal bacteria from their feces ends up on their skin). Just curious if you know what any professionals or hobbyists who maintain large collections did when they raised their own kids?


    • avatar

      Hello Joseph,

      I think doctors vary a bit in their approach, perhaps basing their recommendations on their knowledge of the patient, how careful they are likely to be, potential complications, etc…just my own thoughts, as some doctors are stricter than others re this. I’ve heard all sorts of stories from professionals and hobbyists; a bad experience, as when a zoo curator’s child came down with Salmonella, changes perspectives. Most seem to take extra care when they become parents or are responsible for elderly/ill relatives; not sure how common it is for people to give away pets.

      Please let me know if you need any further information. Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

      Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  4. avatar

    The thing I personally find in these statements is not that reptiles are riskier than other types of pets, but cultural prejudice. The fact that reptiles and amphibians are lumped together reflects such prejudice. In fact much fewer studies have been done on salmonella carriage in amphibians, and they give much lower rates. They are two different classes of vertebrates. Sorry if I speak harse, but in these conclusions I have came. Everything new and unusual is firstly met with opposition, even in the open-minded, as we wish to believe, western culture. The reptile hobby is no different. Various radical groups have used the salmonella scare, the possibility of invasive species, etc to validate their angendas, and have pressured and continue to pressure government bodies to adopt them.
    Salmonella is carried by reptiles, that is a fact, as it is scientifically proven. But the risk is not the same with every species and every situation. For example the odds of a child getting salmonella from a relatively small or low-maintainance species kept usually in its enclosure are much lower, even none, than from a larger, wide roaming and pooping, meat eating reptile. I cannot believe that the first case is riskier than the family dog coming from outside, where it might have licked everything, and then licking the child’s face. That example is obviously much riskier, yet the cdc doesn’t ban dogs for that, as they are well-accepted animals. All these fass about reptile seems over-reaction to me.
    Here in Europe we are not so paranoid. I do no herpers from some countries, and I haven’t heard anywhere that any organization discourages reptiles for families with small children if hygien is followed. We wash our hands, we don’t turn them loos in our kitchens, we don’t allow infants to mess with them. But we don’t treat them as sewer rats in our homes.

    • avatar


      I’m not sure how you have come to those conclusions; but where disease is involved, facts and not opinions must be our guides. As a career herpetologist who has dealt with this issue over a lifetime, in conjunction with medical doctors and zoo-based veterinarians involved in related research, I’ve had a bit of experience and occasion to stay current with the literature. Most Salmonella infections in the USA arise from contact with contaminated meat, eggs and other foods. Reptile and amphibian (amphibians, at least those studied to date, are carriers) ownership is also a source. Small tank-bound animals are a risk, as these tend to be handled by poorly-supervised children and also purchased on a whim by those not-well versed in their care and the precautions needed to avoid infection (this is one of the reason behind the ban on the sale of turtles under 4 inches…not ideal, of course, but felt to be impt at the time, some 40+ years ago); recently, a significant outbreak was traced to Dwarf African Frogs, Hymenochirus curpites.. Diet is not relevant as far as I know. Allowing a reptile to wander about a home at will is irresponsible for a wide variety pf reasons.

      I’m appalled by those who let dogs lick their faces, share their beds, etc; and dogs can certainly transmit a wide array of micro-organisms, including Salmonella, but this seems not to occur with any regularity; I have not looked into why this is so. An infectious disease doctor that I met with recently re another article informed me that within his practice (NYC and environs), infections from cat scratches and mico-bacteria infections from fish aquariums are the most common zoonotics he encounters.

      I have deleted the last sentence of your comment; I do not post politically-oriented comments, insulting or otherwise; please avoid such in the future. Thank you, Frank

  5. avatar

    Sorry for that sentence, but I could not do other than expressing this. You now talk more balanced and logical. I understand your point, but I have a question. If fish were a source of bacterial infections, then why the cdc hasn’t banned them? Also, wy should we automatically thing that small tank-bound reptiles are always handled by children?
    Diet matters, as snakes and other carnivores have higher carriage, and the salmonella serotypes change with the mice they eat, if they are infected.

    • avatar


      The regulatory process is quite complex, and there are many other considerations…economic, of course, political, the need for accurate documentation and so on; tobacco is legal, trans fats are regulated; venomous snakes legal in some states, boas etc of any size illegal in NYC, and so on. Re tank bound…studies, experience is behind the concerns; massive outbreaks prior to the “4 inch rule”; the regs are “logical”, if imperfect. There are over 1,500 species of Salmonella, not all act as zoonotics, not all survive in herps…complex topic, cannot be explained by diet as mentioned earlier; there is plenty of info available; technical journals generally post only abstracts online, but still likely your best source.

  6. avatar

    Just my two cents… I think that this is yet another example why there is a high need for education before somebody enters the hobby as an infant or someone that is already a hobbist starts a family. In the first case a particular animal needs or not to match with a particular child, not the first thing that shows on your pet shop. I kept for example fire belly newts since I was 6, and at the time and still now I think they are one of the BEST pets you can get, for me at the time they were the coolest thing ever. HOWEVER I was into observing things, not into handling them. If your child is into handling 99% of the amphibs are not for you (I said 99% because some frogs and toads can be very interactive and tame but once again it depends on the interest, compreention and patience of the child) and many reptiles as well. Now I know that fire belly newts besides salmonell have something called tetradotoxin… The diference between handling or not makes it completly safe or not safe at all. Parents need to know the animal their kids are messing with and impose rules for both child and animal safety.


    • avatar

      Thanks, Pedro,

      I earlier times, reptile/amphibs were mainly kept (in US)( by people interested in them as animals to observe and study, as you describe. Their explosion in popularity in recent decades has resulted in their being viewed by many as similar to dogs or cats, which is silly, of course. (good aspects also…species not seen in zoos are now commonly bred, etc). Amphibians should, as you say, not be handled in most cases. There have been instances of human fatalities here in the US as a result of people (gen drunk young men) swallowing native newts.

      Best, Frank

About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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