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Backyard Reptiles

I’ll bet you didn’t know that lizards and turtles can carry harmful bacteria called Salmonella.

I love reptiles and I bet you do too (or you probably would not be reading this article!). You may have noticed that reptiles are becoming more and more popular as family pets. Reptiles such as turtles, iguanas, snakes, geckos, horned toads, and chameleons can make great pets because they are fascinating, quiet, don’t require daily feeding/walking, and can be kept in a cage with relatively very little fuss. However, there is a cautionary note folks need to be aware of when taking on a reptile for a pet. Reptiles sometimes carry a bacteria 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. The trick is that you can’t tell by looking at a lizard, snake, or a turtle if it is carrying Salmonella. You see, Salmonella occurs naturally in many reptiles and the bacteria doesn’t usually make the animals sick.

If you have ever had about it, you most likely won’t ever forget it. Salmonellosis is a serious infection of the gastrointestinal tract. Diarrhea is the most common symptom of Salmonella infection, but other symptoms such as fever, headache, nausea, and vomiting can also occur. It can sometimes be extremely serious and even fatal for young children, the elderly, and persons with weak immune systems. Salmonellosis is not to be taken lightly. For that reason, families with children aged 5 years or younger or persons with weak immune systems should think twice about having pet reptiles.

Bacteria, including Salmonella, are easily passed from pet reptiles to people. Research by the Center for Disease Control shows that a person who handles reptiles can easily pass germs to others because bacteria are able to cling to skin, clothing and other surfaces. To reduce the chances of getting sick with salmonellosis by handling reptiles, here are some tips to follow as a reptile pet owner:

  • Wash hands with soap and water immediately after handling a reptile; Launder any clothing the reptile might have touched
  • Do not allow reptiles to roam the house freely
  • Keep reptiles out of the kitchen
  • Use soap or a disinfectant to thoroughly clean any surfaces that have been in contact with reptiles.

Another thing to keep in mind is that it is 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 some small children treat smaller turtles as toys and put them in their mouths. Yuk! Despite this ban, these small turtles can still be found in some pet stores.

Of course, children will still catch wild turtles and lizards and bring them home to keep as pets, which is what kids are supposed to do. Just keep in mind, 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 persons with compromised immune systems in the household.

Tom Vaughan is an avid admirer of reptiles, especially snakes. He caught his first rattlesnake (pygmy rattler) at age 10 and hasn’t stopped catching reptiles since. A favorite website is [http://www.reptilefile.com]

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