Salmonella is a bacterium that is extremely common in reptiles and can cause illness both in reptiles and humans. Reptile owners need to take precautions to keep both themselves and their pets healthy.
What is Salmonella?
Salmonella is the general name for a large "family" of bacteria that usually lives in the gastrointestinal system. There are many types of salmonella. Each type, or serotype, has its own two-part name that starts with salmonella and ends with a descriptive name. Some are highly pathogenic, meaning they nearly always cause disease, while others may simply provide reptiles with a healthy population of bacteria in their guts. These may or may not cause disease in humans or other species of reptiles.
Up to 90 percent of reptiles have been shown to shed some type of salmonella bacteria in their feces. The presence of salmonella in imported green iguanas has been well publicized, but it is important to remember that ALL reptiles are prone to carry some serotype of salmonella.
Salmonella infections can result in a variety of illnesses. The most common clinical signs for both reptiles and people are diarrhea, pneumonia, meningitis (infection of the lining of the brain) or septicemia (blood infection). See your veterinarian if you see these illnesses in your pet reptile. People who own or handle reptiles should know that salmonella is most commonly transmitted to people when reptile fecal material is allowed to come into contact with food preparation surfaces, bathing areas or, especially in small children, the mouth.
The possibility of infection is great enough that reptiles are not recommended pets for people with compromised immune systems. Some people belonging to this group are infants, toddlers, the elderly, pregnant women, chemotherapy recipients, transplant recipients and AIDS patients. The Center for Disease Control recommends that children under the age of 5 not handle reptiles and that homes with children under 1 not keep reptiles. Reptiles should not be kept as pets for daycare centers.
Reptiles that are malnourished, housed under less than ideal conditions, carrying intestinal parasites or suffering from other diseases are more likely to succumb to a salmonella infection. These highly stressed animals are also more likely to shed large quantities of salmonella in their feces and therefore pose more of a health risk to owners and other animals.
Antibiotics can be used to decrease the numbers of salmonella bacteria enough to treat most active infections, but prevention is much better medicine. Antibiotics almost never kill all of the salmonella bacteria. In fact the bacteria that survive are usually resistant to the antibiotic that was just used to treat the patient and so will be harder to kill in the future. This is a big problem. It means that it is impossible to create a salmonella-free pet reptile and trying to do so will only result in more disease-causing bacteria. Reptile owners need to take the precautions listed below to limit the spread of salmonella and its ability to cause disease.
Diagnosing and Treating Salmonella
Your veterinarian will conduct tests to determine whether your reptile is infected with salmonella, to identify the bacteria's serotype and to identify the proper course of medication. A series of tests may be necessary because sometimes tests results are negative when the bacteria is, in fact, present in a reptile's system.
Your veterinarian most likely will start your reptile on an antibiotic while you are awaiting the test results. If a fecal examination shows that your reptile is also infected with parasites, your veterinarian may also administer a dewormer. After the antibiotic sensitivity results are back, your veterinarian may need to change the antibiotic.
Your veterinarian will probably suggest that you give antibiotics in an oral (by mouth) or injectable form at home. In addition, it is very common for veterinarians to have reptile owners administer subcutaneous fluids (fluids given under the skin) at home in order to maintain normal hydration. If an owner is able to do this at home, it allows the reptile to be housed in its regular cage and decreases the cost of treatment. Before you leave the vet, be sure you ask for more instruction if you are not comfortable giving any of the medications or fluids.
Depending on your reptile's history and its exact clinical signs your veterinarian may need to administer other treatments or even hospitalize your reptile.
Caring for Your Reptile at Home