by Whit Gibbons

December 5, 2004

With the holiday season come increased travel and more frequent gatherings of friends and relatives. Hence, our chances of exposure to contagious ailments also go up. Another holiday consideration is that unusual pets sometimes serve as holiday gifts, and I recently received a question about the chances of disease transmittal from other animals to us. The query harkened me back to responses I have given to similar questions in the past.

Q. What is salmonella? Can you get it from other animals?

A. Salmonella bacteria causes a not-so-pleasant digestive system ailment (salmonellosis) characterized by diarrhea, fever, and cramps within a day of exposure. The likelihood of developing symptoms after more than a day or two is unlikely to nonexistent. The possibility of contracting salmonella from handling wild or pet animals exists, but the risks are so low that worrying about the possibility causes more stress than is warranted. If you like to handle animals, or want your child to have one for a pet, be aware of any hazards, but weigh the cost-benefit odds. The benefits will usually win.

Q. How common is it for reptiles to carry salmonella?

A. Many reptiles carry salmonella, but healthy ones are usually not affected. Many salmonella strains exist, and the virulence to humans varies greatly. A person's health, age, and physiological condition can determine one's response to exposure. Few people require medication to recover safely from salmonellosis.

Q. How big is the risk when keeping reptiles in the home with young children?

A. Reptiles are no different from other pets, including dogs, cats, or badgers. Some work out well for kids; some do not. (Probably no badgers work well.) Compared to healthy adults, people with chronic illnesses as well as infants and the elderly may be more susceptible to salmonella; nonetheless, the risk of contracting salmonellosis is still low. Some authorities say that children under age eight should avoid contact with reptiles from which salmonella might be contracted. Others have more lenient opinions, suggesting supervised handling of pet reptiles by children, with a requirement that hands be kept away from the face until washed with soap and water. Understanding the importance of cleanliness is critical for any pet owner.

Q. What is the threat of salmonella from a wild reptile?

A. Some reptiles should never be picked up except by a professional, but the probability of contracting salmonellosis from a wild reptile, as with those that are properly cared for in captivity, is exceedingly low.

In my opinion, the risk of salmonellosis in most instances is too small to warrant concern about keeping or picking up reptiles. I have spent my life, from age 10 or so, handling reptiles of all sorts, both captive and in the wild, and have never been afflicted by salmonella. My students and I have handled more than 60,000 turtles and snakes over the past 30 years. No one has contracted salmonellosis from the animals, presumably because of a combination of relatively low risk and following proper health and safety protocols.

I am opposed to the sky-is-falling approach of many government regulatory programs to most of life's risks. Therefore I do not support an attitude that reptiles or other animals are to be feared more than they are to be respected and appreciated. This includes any risk of their having salmonella. My general attitude about dealing with biological problems such as the threat of salmonella is like my attitude toward irrational fears of venomous snakes, stingrays, killer bees, or grizzly bears. All of them can hurt you. Few, vanishingly few, ever do.

A much greater threat to society is the impact on environmental education that could come from people who emphasize something bad that "could" happen instead of the low-risk probabilities of what is likely to happen. The best approach is to encourage people to enjoy nature and the many fascinating, exciting, and intriguing plants and animals that live in the world rather than trying to override their enjoyment with unnecessary fears and regulations. People should be educated about potential hazards and precautions, such as always washing your hands after handling an animal, but then be allowed to make their own choices about which risks to take for themselves or their children.

If you have an environmental question or comment, email

(Back to Ecoviews)