Despite their differences from us, there are several diseases which can be transmitted from reptiles to humans and care must be taken when handling reptiles to prevent infection.
Generally, with good sanitation and personal hygiene practices, as well as keeping reptile pets out of food preparation areas, the risks are small and easily minimised. However, young children, the elderly or people with suppressed immune systems may be particularly vulnerable. In addition, it is important to have any new reptile pet examined by the vet and checked for parasites and other infectious diseases before introducing it to your home.
The most notorious disease carried by reptiles is Salmonellosis, caused by the Salmonella bacterium. This is a serious disease, with potentially fatal consequences if untreated, particularly in children. It is also a difficult bacterium to combat as it is not easily destroyed through the normal 10-day course of antibiotics – instead, this often creates an animal which is an asymptomatic carrier and will continue to shed the bacterium during times of stress.
Part of the problem with Salmonella is that it is so difficult to diagnose – examination of the faeces is not always conclusive and even if a faecal culture does not show the presence of the bacterium, this does not mean that the reptile doesn’t harbour the organism. In many cases, several consecutive cultures are needed to make a diagnosis.
Given these problems and the seriousness of the disease, the best option is prevention. This is done by treating every reptile as a potential carrier and taking appropriate precautions. For example, establishing a rule that everyone in the family must wash their hands after handling their pet reptile and wearing gloves and face protection when cleaning out the reptile’s enclosure and supplies. In addition, never clean your reptile’s equipment and housing in the kitchen or bathroom and use a disinfectant recommended by your vet. Always supervise young children around reptiles and monitor other pets as well. Most of all, never, ever kiss your reptile! If anyone is scratched or bitten by a reptile, treat it seriously and consult a doctor to rule out any chance of infection.
Another bacteria potentially carried by reptiles which can cause serious illness in humans is Campylobacter, which causes serious gastroenteritis, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting and fever. Tuberculosis can also be transmitted to humans through scratches and bites, when handling and cleaning the cage of an infected reptile. Other infections include fungal and viral infections and many reptiles will harbour a population of protozoan organisms capable of causing diseases – however, this is usually only a serious risk to the very young, the elderly and the immune-suppressed.
Reptiles also suffer from external parasites and they can easily be infested by ticks and mites. Both of these – although harmless to humans in themselves – can carry diseases that affect humans, such as relapsing fever and western equine encephalitis virus.
Lastly, reptiles can also harbour worms, the most dangerous to humans being the pentastomid worms. The eggs of these worms are shed in the millions, through the respiratory passages and the faeces and are so tiny, they are invisible to the naked eye. Thus, humans can easily swallow the eggs when handling the reptile or cleaning the cage and this leads to larvae penetrating the intestines and then entering the lymph nodes, liver, lungs or other organs. Eventually, they will migrate through the human body, causing inflammation and reaction in their wake and surgery may be necessary to remove the larval cysts.
Start with Good Stock…
Aside from good hygiene practices and sensible precautions when handling pet reptiles and their equipment, it helps to obtain the reptile from a domestically-bred and raised source. Captive-bred animals are housed in much cleaner and healthier conditions and will also not be suffering from the stress of capture and transport, as wild-caught reptiles.