(Editor's note: The FDA has updated their tip sheet on preventing Salmonella infection in people who have pet reptiles.)
You may be one of the many Americans who owns a pet reptile or amphibian. Reptiles, such as corn snakes, iguanas, and red-eared sliders, and amphibians, such as frogs and toads, are unique creatures and can make for interesting pets. But pet reptiles and amphibians carry some risks to their owners, such as the potential for Salmonella infection. The reptiles and amphibians themselves as well as the feeder rodents fed to some of these animals can be sources of Salmonella infection for people.
What Are Feeder Rodents?
Feeder rodents are mice and rats—both frozen and live—used to feed some reptiles, such as certain snakes and lizards, as well as some amphibians, such as “pacman” frogs.
Feeder rodents go by various names, depending on their age: pinkies (1 to 5 days old), fuzzies (6 to 13 days old), hoppers (14 to 20 days old), and adults (21 days and older).
What is Salmonellosis?
Salmonellosis is an infection with bacteria called Salmonella. People get salmonellosis by ingesting Salmonella germs.
These germs can be found in the feces or droppings of many different animals, such as reptiles, amphibians, rodents, and chickens, or in the areas where these animals live and roam. These germs can also be found in the aquarium water where certain animals, like turtles or water frogs, live as pets.
What Are The Symptoms Of Salmonellosis in People?
The symptoms of salmonellosis in people include diarrhea (which may be bloody), vomiting, fever, and abdominal cramps. People start showing symptoms within12 to 72 hours after they ingest Salmonella germs. The illness usually lasts 4 to 7 days, and most people recover without treatment. However the illness can be serious, even fatal, in some people. Children under 5 years of age, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems are at higher risk for salmonellosis and may develop more severe illness.
What Should I Do If I Develop Symptoms Of Salmonellosis?
If you develop any symptoms of salmonellosis, call your health care provider. Be sure to tell your health care provider if you have had recent contact with reptiles, amphibians, or feeder rodents.
How Do Feeder Rodents And Reptiles Get Salmonella?
Feeder rodents, reptiles, and amphibians can naturally carry Salmonella in their intestines and show no signs of illness. The animals shed the bacteria in their feces or droppings and, in turn, the feces or droppings contaminate the environment with Salmonella, including the outside of the animals’ bodies and their habitats.
How Do I Become Infected With Salmonella From Feeder Rodents Or Reptiles?
Feeder rodents, reptiles, and amphibians might have Salmonella germs on their bodies even when they appear healthy and clean. The germs can also get on the inside and outside of their cages, aquariums, and terrariums. You should consider anything that feeder rodents, reptiles, and amphibians touch as possibly contaminated with Salmonella. The germs can get on your hands and clothes when you touch these animals, their enclosures, or items in their habitat, such as bedding, basking rocks, and food and water dishes. You can also get Salmonella germs from touching contaminated surfaces, such as countertops, microwave ovens, refrigerators and freezers, kitchen utensils, and glasses and bowls used to store, thaw, and prepare feeder rodents.
Freezing does not kill Salmonella, so both frozen and live feeder rodents can be contaminated. Some companies may irradiate packages of frozen feeder rodents to lower the risk of Salmonella contamination. The labels on these packages will include the statement “treated with radiation” or “treated by irradiation” along with the international symbol for irradiation, the Radura.
Is Salmonellosis the Only Disease I Can Get From Rodents?
No, you can get other diseases from rodents besides salmonellosis. Worldwide, rats and mice spread over 35 diseases to people. Rodents spread some diseases directly to people through physical contact. This can happen if you handle an infected rodent, an infected rodent bites you, or you touch an infected rodent’s feces, urine, or saliva.
Rodents spread other diseases indirectly to people, meaning you can get sick without having any contact with an infected rodent. This can happen when a tick, mite, or flea feeds on an infected rodent and then bites you.
Be aware that feeder rodents, wild rodents, and pet rodents can all spread (transmit) diseases—directly or indirectly—to people.
• Diseases directly transmitted by rodents
• Diseases indirectly transmitted by rodents
Tips to Reduce the Risk of Salmonella Infection From Handling Frozen and Live Feeder Rodents – The Do’s And Don’ts
- DO thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water (for at least 20 seconds) immediately after handling reptiles or amphibians. DO supervise children during hand washing.
- DO supervise children older than 5 years of age when they are handling reptiles or amphibians.
- DO thoroughly clean and disinfect all surfaces that come in contact with your pet reptile or amphibian, including objects in the areas where it lives and roams. Talk with your veterinarian about which disinfectant is safe to use and how often. The Association of Reptilian and Amphibian Veterinarians has a Find a Vet page that lists veterinarians, by state, who have experience with these animals.
- DO clean your pet reptile’s or amphibian’s habitat and its contents outside and use disposable gloves when cleaning. DON’T dispose of the waste water from cleaning in sinks where you prepare your food or get your drinking water. DON’T clean the habitat and its contents near any sources of food (such as gardens or crop fields) or drinking water for people.
- DO flush waste water from your pet reptile or amphibian down the toilet. DO dispose of droppings in a dedicated trash can stored away from your kitchen. DON'T dispose of droppings or waste water down your kitchen sink, bathroom sink, or bathtub.
- DON’T let children younger than 5 years, the elderly, or people with weakened immune systems handle or touch reptiles or amphibians. They also shouldn't handle or touch any object where these animals live and roam.
- DON’T house pet reptiles or amphibians in children's bedrooms, especially if the children are younger than 5 years. It’s best to keep reptiles and amphibians out of homes with children younger than 5 years, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems.
- DON’T touch your mouth after handling reptiles and amphibians and don’t eat, drink, or smoke until you have washed your hands thoroughly.
- DON’T kiss your pet reptile or amphibian.
- DON’T bathe your pet reptile in your kitchen sink, bathroom sink, or bathtub. DO bathe your pet reptile in a small plastic tub or bin used solely for this purpose.
- DON’T let your pet reptile roam freely throughout your house, especially in areas where food and drinks for people are stored, prepared, served, or eaten.
Most of these tips hold true for pet rodents. Please see “Stay Healthy around Small Pets.”