Make Appointment
Our caring staff welcomes your call: (813) 254-3031 Se Habla Español
Conveniently located to serve your pets: 103 N. Howard Avenue, Tampa, 33606
Sign Up For Email Updates
Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.

Can my reptile make me sick?

Veterinarian care for turtles available in Tampa FLI’m sure you’ve heard the fairy tale of the Frog Prince, where the princess kisses a frog and breaks the wicked spell placed upon him, turning him back into a prince.  The tale has been told many times, and spawned the popular phrase “you’ve got to kiss a lot of frogs to find your prince”.  As a veterinarian, I love the tale, but would never recommend kissing a frog. Or a turtle, or a wide variety of reptiles for that matter. Not that they don’t deserve our love and affection- they certainly do. But doing so can spread the Salmonella bacteria.

A number of reptiles and amphibians can carry and spread Salmonella.  Yes, it’s very true.  Salmonella causes severe intestinal problems in humans- and children and the elderly are highly susceptible to this illness. Severe cases can lead to hospitalization and in some circumstances, death. The majority of cases of Salmonellosis (the illness caused by the Salmonella bacteria) are caused by a person eating improperly prepared foods, such as poultry, eggs, meats and even fruits and vegetables.  So, how do reptiles and amphibians fit in to this tale?

Many reptiles and some amphibians are known carriers of the Salmonella bacteria. (Salmonella is actually an entire family of bacteria). Turtles are known to be the worst culprit.  But that doesn’t mean that if you have a turtle, that you are at risk. You should take some precautions if you have any of these pets, but generally speaking- if you follow some simple rules you should be safe. I’ll get to those simple rules in a bit.

A few notes on turtles. Remember that it is illegal for anyone to sell a turtle whose shell is less than 4 inches in diameter.  It’s not because smaller turtles pose a higher risk of being a carrier of Salmonella. It’s because small children like to put everything in their mouths.  In 1975, the 4” turtle rule went into effect, but it did not eliminate the risk of Salmonella outbreaks caused by our hard-shelled reptilian friends.

I have a turtle, how do I know if they carry Salmonella?

Since Salmonella very rarely affects reptiles, they will almost never show outward signs.  We can test their fecal matter, but your pet is not always shedding the bacteria. So, if the test is done while the pet is not shedding, it could be a false test result.  It’s usually best just to assume that they are carriers, and take the necessary steps to prevent the spread of the bacteria.

Is there a way to eliminate the bacteria from my pet?

Unfortunately, no.  A group of scientists once thought that they could reproduce Salmonella-free turtles and eliminate the issue, but the results were short-lived.

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has compiled a good list of tips on how to prevent the spread of Salmonella when it comes to your reptiles or amphibians.  I agree with all of these tips, and recommend you follow them if you have a reptile or amphibian- or are considering getting one:

  • Always wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after touching or handling any amphibian or reptile, its housing, or anything (including food) that has come in contact with a reptile or amphibian or its feces (stool).
  • Adults should closely supervise children when they handle amphibians or reptiles, and should assist young children with hand washing.
  • If you or any of your family members develop diarrhea, stomach cramps, fever or other signs of illness, contact a physician. Make sure you inform your physician of your contact with a reptile or amphibian.
  • Children less than 5 years old should not be allowed to come into contact with amphibians or reptiles without close supervision. Children less than 5 years old are at high risk of Salmonella infection.
  • Elderly people and people with weakened immune systems are at high risk of Salmonella infection and should be especially cautious about contact with amphibians or reptiles or their environments.
  • Amphibians and reptiles should not be kept in child-care centers.
  • Reptile and amphibian pets should not be housed in children’s bedrooms. This is especially important when the children are less than 5 years old.
  • Do not allow amphibians or reptiles to roam freely throughout your house.
  • It is especially important to keep reptiles and amphibians out of food and drink preparation areas.
  • When cleaning the reptile’s or amphibian’s habitat:
  • Wear gloves and do not clean the habitat in or near any areas used for food or drink preparation.
  • If possible, clean the habitat outside of the house and in an area that is not frequently accessed by children, elderly or immunocompromised people.
  • Do not clean the habitat near any sources of food (such as gardens or crop fields) or drinking water.
  • After cleaning the habitat, remove and discard the gloves and thoroughly wash your hands.
  • Children less than 5 years old should not be allowed to clean the reptile’s or amphibian’s habitat.
  • Do not bathe reptiles or amphibians in your kitchen sink or near any areas used for food or drink preparation. If you use a bathtub for this purpose, it should be thoroughly cleaned and bleached afterward to kill any bacteria that may remain on the surface.

I know this sounds like a lot, but they’re all pretty simple rules to follow and remember.  Reptiles and amphibians can be excellent pets, and I would never tell someone to avoid these pets- I would just tell them to follow these precautions.

I’m already working on my next blog- which will give you some good tips on what to do when cleaning your amphibian or reptile cage. If your pet is a carrier of Salmonella, the bacteria will be in their cage, too. So look out for my next blog and we’ll discuss how to keep yourself safe when cleaning their habitat.