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CDC Features

Reptiles and Salmonella

Photo: Boy holding a gecko
Did you know lizards and turtles can carry a harmful germ called Salmonella? If there are infants or small children in your home, reptiles might not be safe pets for your family.

Photo: Turtle in a person's hand

Reptiles are popular pets with many families. Small reptiles like turtles, iguanas, snakes, geckos, horned toads, and chameleons are colorful, quiet, and often kept as caged pets. Reptiles require careful handling, however, because they can carry a germ called Salmonella that can cause serious illness in people. Although many people think of salmonellosis as an illness caused by contaminated food, it can also be caught by handling a pet reptile or contact with its environment.

Salmonellosis is a serious infection of the gastrointestinal tract. (Information on this infection is also available in Spanish.) Diarrhea is the most common symptom of Salmonella infection, but other symptoms such as fever, headache, nausea, and vomiting can also occur. Salmonellosis can be very serious and sometimes fatal for young children, the elderly, and persons with weak immune systems. Therefore, families with children aged 5 years or younger in the home should avoid keeping reptiles as pets.

Salmonella occurs naturally in many reptiles and does not usually make the animals sick. You cannot tell by looking at a lizard, snake, or a turtle if it is carrying Salmonella.

Photo: Person holding a snake

Bacteria, including Salmonella, are easily passed from pet reptiles to people. Research shows that a person who handles reptiles can easily pass germs to others because bacteria are able to cling to clothing and other surfaces such as our hands. To reduce the chances of family members getting sick with salmonellosis, pet owners should

Wash hands with soap and water immediately after handling a reptile;

Launder any clothing the reptile might have touched;

Not allow reptiles to roam the house freely;

Keep reptiles out of kitchens; and

Use soap or a disinfectant to thoroughly clean any surfaces that have been in contact with reptiles.

Since 1975 it has been illegal in the United States to sell or distribute turtles with shells that measure less than 4 inches in length. This size was chosen because small children are more likely to treat smaller turtles as toys and put them in their mouths. This ban prohibiting the sale of small turtles likely remains the most effective public health action to prevent turtle-associated salmonellosis. Despite this ban, such turtles are still found in some pet stores. In addition, children still catch wild turtles and lizards and bring them home to keep as pets. Whether store-bought or caught in a friend's backyard, a reptile can carry Salmonella and might not be the best choice of a pet for your family, especially if there are young children or immunocompromised persons in the household.

Additional Information

Page last reviewed: October 22, 2007
Page last updated: October 29, 2007
Content source: National Center for Zoonotic, Vector-Borne and Enteric Diseases
Content owner: National Center for Health Marketing
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