Lizards are truly underrated pets. Bearded dragons in particular are smart and friendly and fun to care for, so it’s no surprise that they’re popular family pets. One warning, though: Any pet reptile can carry Salmonella bacteria, and the CDC is warning about a recent outbreak in bearded dragons that has affected children.
Reptiles can carry Salmonella
This should be Reptile Care 101, but a lot of folks seem to have missed the message—or they know, but have gotten a bit lax about safety protocol. Reptiles and amphibians can sometimes carry Salmonella as part of the normal “good” bacteria in their gut. That means you can have a healthy pet that is able to make you sick.
We hear about these outbreaks every now and then. Turtles are such common carriers of the bacteria that baby turtles cannot be sold as pets in the U.S. (which is probably good news for the turtles, since most turtles grow larger than people realize and are often abandoned when they get too big to be cute.) You may recall that last year, the CDC asked us to stop kissing backyard chickens, which can also carry Salmonella. Frogs, iguanas, snakes, and other reptile and amphibian pets can be carriers as well.
Illness from Salmonella is most common in people who are under 5 years old or over 65, and symptoms include fever, diarrhea, and vomiting that may be severe enough you can’t keep liquids down. The CDC advises that you seek medical care if you or your child have any of these symptoms, or signs of dehydration that include not peeing much or being dizzy when standing up.
How to prevent catching Salmonella from your pet reptile
Do you have to give up your beloved beardie? Not at all, but you should be aware of what counts as safe handling.
If you’re a healthy adult human, the main thing you need to know is to wash your hands after handling your pet, or after doing pet care tasks like feeding them or cleaning their enclosure. (Hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol can do in a pinch.) You should wash your hands after coming in contact with your pet or their things, and before eating or drinking.
Salmonella bacteria can also be transferred to surfaces, so don’t bring your pet into the kitchen, and remember to wash your hands after touching things that your pet has touched.
Pet reptiles aren’t for children under 5
As cute as it might be to see your kid snuggling a pet lizard, the CDC recommends that children under 5 years old should not handle pet reptiles at all. This isn’t just because little kids put everything in their mouth, although that’s part of it.
The real concern is that children are more at risk than healthy adults for getting severely ill from Salmonella. In the recent outbreak linked to bearded dragons, the CDC notes that about half of the people who got sick were under 1 year old. (So far, 23 people have gotten sick and 8 have been hospitalized.)
That doesn’t mean that everybody was letting their kid slobber directly onto a lizard; remember, the bacteria can be transmitted on surfaces. Maybe you hear your kid crying while you’re taking care of your beardie, so you put them back in their tank to go pick up your kid. The CDC recommends that you always wash your hands in between holding or caring for your reptile and holding or caring for your child.
Similarly, you’ll want to avoid situations where the pet is roaming around the same room that the child plays in, and you definitely don’t want to wash the pet’s tank, food bowls, or other equipment in the kitchen sink. Washing outdoors or in a laundry tub would do a better job of keeping the germs out of living spaces where the kid might encounter them.
Besides children, people who are elderly or immunocompromised may also be at greater risk of getting sick from a pet who has Salmonella. Unfortunately it’s not possible to accurately test a pet reptile for Salmonella (they may test negative but still carry the bacteria) nor to reliably “cure” them of it, according to the Association of Reptile and Amphibian Veterinarians.