Salmonella: Amphibians and Reptiles (FAQ)

December 11, 2009

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the Association of Reptile and Amphibian Veterinarians (ARAV) provide the following information for pet owners concerned about Salmonella associated with amphibians and reptiles.

Q: What is Salmonella?

A: Salmonella is actually the name for an entire family of bacteria, not just one type. Members of the Salmonella family usually live in the intestines of humans or animals, and the bacteria may be passed (shed) in the stool. Not all Salmonella infections cause illness.

Q: What is salmonellosis?

A: Salmonellosis is the disease that results from Salmonella infection. People with salmonellosis usually have diarrhea, stomach pain/cramps and a fever. They are usually ill for 4-7 days. Most people with salmonellosis recover from their illness without treatment, but some become very ill and need to be hospitalized and intensively treated. If the bacteria are absorbed into the blood from the intestine, they can infect other organs and the infection can become severe enough to cause death.

Q: What is the difference between being infected and being a carrier of Salmonella?

A: When someone is infected, they usually develop illness (salmonellosis). A carrier is a person or animal who has the Salmonella bacteria living in their intestinal tract (gut), but doesn't get ill. Carriers may pass the bacteria in their stool (this is called "shedding" the bacteria), and it is possible for a carrier to infect other animals or people that come into contact with the carrier's stool while they are shedding the bacteria.

Q: What types of animals can be infected with or carry Salmonella?

A: Many animals can be infected with and/or become carriers of Salmonella, including birds, livestock, horses, reptiles, amphibians, rodents, dogs and cats. And yes, even people can be Salmonella carriers. Carriers are more likely to shed the bacteria in their feces (stool) when they are stressed or when their immune systems are weakened by medications or disease.

Q: How do amphibians and reptiles spread Salmonella to people?

A: Amphibians and reptiles can harbor Salmonella bacteria in their intestinal tract (gut), and can pass (shed) the bacteria in their feces (stool) off and on or continuously. People become infected when they swallow the bacteria. Because bacteria are invisible to the naked eye, you can't see them on surfaces, your hands, etc. If you come into contact with a contaminated surface or piece of equipment (such as cage equipment, food bowls, etc.), or the stool of an animal shedding the bacteria, you can get the bacteria on your skin. If you then eat, prepare food, or touch your face or mouth without properly washing your hands first, you may end up swallowing the bacteria and infecting yourself with Salmonella.

Q: Are certain people at higher risk of being infected with Salmonella and becoming ill?

A: Yes. Elderly people and infants are at higher risk. People with weakened immune systems, due to disease or medications, are more likely to be infected and more likely to develop severe illness.

Q: Are there other ways people can become infected by Salmonella?

A: Definitely. It is a foodborne disease – most commonly, people become infected with Salmonella when they eat food that has been contaminated with the feces (stool) from an infected animal. Improperly prepared or undercooked/raw animal products, such as beef, poultry, milk (unpasteurized) and eggs, are the most common sources of foodborne salmonellosis, but even vegetables or fruit can become contaminated with feces and infect people if eaten without first being properly prepared.

Q: Are there certain species of reptiles and amphibians that are more likely to carry Salmonella?

A: One group of animals that is considered likely to spread Salmonella is turtles with shells less than 4 inches (10.2 cm) in length. This isn't because they're any more likely to be carriers, it's because their small size makes them more likely for toddlers and infants to put them in their mouths. Since 1975, it has been illegal to sell or distribute turtles with shell lengths less than 4 inches (10.2 cm).

Any amphibian or reptile has the potential to carry and shed Salmonella. For safety's sake, it is recommended that you treat all amphibians and reptiles as if they are carriers of Salmonella.

Q: Will Salmonella make my pet amphibian/reptile sick?

A: The bacteria do not usually cause illness in amphibians and reptiles.

Q: How can I find out if my pet amphibian/reptile is carrying Salmonella?

A: You won't know just from looking at it whether or not an amphibian or reptile is carrying Salmonella. Fecal (stool) or cloacal cultures will determine if your pet is carrying the bacteria. Since they have to be shedding the bacteria in their feces (stool) and some only shed the bacteria intermittently, several cultures may be necessary to detect Salmonella.

Q: My pet amphibian/reptile is a Salmonella carrier. Can it be treated so it no longer carries the bacteria?

A: Unfortunately, no. Once your pet becomes a carrier, it will most likely remain a carrier. But the good news is that simple measures, such as proper hygiene and sanitation, can dramatically reduce the chances that you or others could become infected by your pet. In addition, keeping your pet healthy and free of stress can reduce the chances it will shed the bacteria.

Q: We are expecting a child and we're worried about Salmonella. Should we get rid of our pet amphibian or reptile?

A: Absolutely not! As we've already said, there are many simple, common sense things you can do to protect your family.

Q: What can I do to protect my family from amphibian- or reptile-associated Salmonella?

A: There are many simple, common sense things you can do to protect your family.

  • 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.

Q: How can I thoroughly clean and disinfect my pet reptile's/amphibian's habitat?

A: Your veterinarian is the best source of information about your pet amphibian's or reptile's care, but here are some basic guidelines for thoroughly cleaning and disinfecting the habitat.

  • Have a clean back-up cage available and transfer the pet amphibian or reptile into this cage while cleaning and disinfecting its habitat.
  • Have a cleaning kit (brushes, sponges, towels, soap, etc.) that is not used for any other purpose than cleaning your pet's habitat.
  • Wear disposable gloves and discard them after cleaning the habitat. Consider also wearing eye protection and a nose/mouth mask to protect yourself from bacteria that may splash on your face while cleaning the habitat and an apron or other form of protection for your clothes.
  • As you clean the habitat, check for any damage that might allow your pet to escape its habitat. If the habitat is damaged beyond repair, replace it.
  • Clean off all rocks and tree branches thoroughly with soap and water to remove all debris. Consider discarding and replacing the branches if they are heavily soiled.
  • Boil rocks in water (do not use a pot that is used to prepare food or drinks) for at least 30 minutes.
  • If you plan to reuse the branches, clean them thoroughly (a toothbrush works well for this. Do not use a toothbrush that is used for any other purpose.) and heat them in an oven at 200-250° for at least 30 minutes.
  • If you use sand in the habitat, rinse it thoroughly with water and heat it in an oven at 200-250° for at least 30 minutes.
  • After cleaning the habitat, remove your gloves and thoroughly wash your hands. If your face or other areas of your skin were splashed or otherwise contaminated, wash the areas thoroughly with soap and water. If your clothes are soiled, wash them in hot water separately from other clothing.

Q: How often should I clean my pet reptile's/amphibian's habitat?

A: It varies, depending on your pet's species, hygiene habits, the size of the habitat, and how many pets you have in the habitat. Daily cleaning to remove feces (stool), uneaten food, and other items can help keep the habitat cleaner and reduce the effort required to keep it clean. In addition, it allows you to detect any changes in your pet's feces, behavior or appetite. In general, habitats should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected weekly. Consult with your veterinarian about the best cleaning schedule for your pet.

For more information about reptiles, amphibians and Salmonella:

Additional Resources
Amphibians, Reptiles and Salmonella

Resource Links: Amphibians, Reptiles and Salmonella

Podcast: Kiss a Frog? Veterinarians warn against it

Brochure: Selecting an Amphibian

Brochure: Selecting a Pet Reptile