During a long career zoo career that found me working with animals ranging from ants to elephants, I’ve had many occasions to review veterinary and pathology reports. In doing so, I’ve come to understand that zoonotic diseases – those that can pass from animals to people – are a potential concern in the keeping of any pet. Most people associate Salmonella, the best known zoonotic, with reptiles, but nearly any animal, including dogs, cats and birds, may harbor this bacterium. Fortunately, Salmonella and other infections can be avoided by following a few relatively simple rules.
Note: This article is not meant to replace a doctor’s advice, nor is it intended to discourage pet ownership. By observing a few simple precautions, the most commonly-encountered problems can be effectively managed. Please post your questions and concerns below, and be sure to consult your doctor or veterinarian for specific information concerning disease prevention and treatment.
What Are the Risks?
If we are to safely enjoy our pets, it is important that we become aware of the concerns while maintaining a reasonable perspective.
For example, while it is true that Salmonella bacteria are likely present in all reptile and amphibian digestive tracts, merely handling an animal that carries Salmonella will not cause an infection. Salmonella bacteria are harmful to people only if ingested. Consider also that dogs may potentially carry at least 17 harmful microorganisms, yet the vast majority of dog owners are never troubled by health problems. Similarly, the same can be said of reptile owners, zookeepers and herpetologists – Salmonella infections are not typical.
Please see this article for information concerning Mycobacteria.
How Infections Are Contracted
Understanding how bacteria are transferred from animals to people is the key to avoiding Salmonella infections. Salmonella bacteria are shed in the feces and can live on counters, tools, food bowls, animal skin and other surfaces for several days.
Reptile skin, water bowls, terrarium substrates and other surfaces may 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.
Always wash your hands with hot, soapy water after handling animals and tools used to service aquariums or terrariums, and after being in an area where animals are allowed to roam free.
Stop working with your pets if you receive a cut or break in the skin. Exposing a wound to terrarium or aquarium water after applying an antibiotic will negate the value of the medicine. Seek a doctor’s advice.
Wear gloves or use a substrate scooper when cleaning animal enclosures. Disposable gloves, available in pharmacies, are fine for most terrariums. Coralife Aqua Gloves, which reach to the elbow, are very useful for aquarium work. Wear goggles if splashing water is a concern.
Reptiles should not be allowed into kitchens, dining rooms or other areas where food is prepared or eaten. Bathroom sinks and tubs, and areas where infants are bathed, should also be off-limits.
Reptiles should not be allowed to roam about the home (this presents a fire hazard as well). If it is necessary to keep a reptile un-caged, it should be confined to an easily-cleaned room from which human food and at-risk individuals (small children and elderly or immune-compromised individuals) are excluded.
Terrariums, aquariums, food bowls and other animal-related items should not be cleaned in kitchen or bathroom sinks. A plastic tub should be used if a basement or “animal-only” sink is not available. Rinse water and fecal material should be disposed of in a toilet, not a sink or tub. Clean accidental spills with a product that contains bleach.
Never start a siphon by sucking on its end with your mouth. Always fill it with water to create suction or use a hand-operated siphon starter.
Do not drink, eat or smoke while working with animals. Never kiss your pet or feed it from bowls used for your own meals.
The Center for Disease Control guidelinescontain additional precautions. Please review them carefully.
Cleaning Terrariums, Aquariums and Related Items
Reptile enclosures, food bowls and the like should be cleaned with Nolvasan, a reptile-safe commercial cleaner, or a bleach solution (1 cup bleach per gallon of water). Zoo Med Wipe Out Terrarium Cleaner kills a wide range of commonly-encountered bacteria, including Salmonella and Pseudomonas.
Amphibians, invertebrates and fishes are especially sensitive to chemicals. Their terrariums and aquariums should be cleaned with fish-safe products or with the bleach solution described above.
Cleaning implements should be soaked in any of the aforementioned cleaners before being re-used. Be sure to remove feces and other organic material before soaking. Rinse the tools well after removal from the soak solution. Immersion in water containing an instant de-chlorinator is recommended for hard-to-clean items (i.e. siphon and filter tubes) that are to be used with fishes or amphibians.