Pets and salmonella Q&A: How to prevent an infection

Our pets may not be as harmless as they look. Just this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported salmonella infection outbreaks related to pet hedgehogs, turtles, and small water frogs this year. Children accounted for many of the cases in each of these outbreaks. Infants, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems are more vulnerable to becoming severely sick from salmonella.

In January, the CDC reported 20 hedgehog-related infections, including one linked to a death. Officials noted an increase in such cases since 2011. Forty-five percent of the cases were in kids 10 years of age or younger. The CDC then reported last month a total of 347 turtle-related illnesses from the past several years in 37 states and the District of Columbia.

Most recently, small water frogs marketed and sold as pets were linked to an outbreak of salmonella infections from 2008 to 2011, according to a CDC report .The infection sickened 376 people in 44 U.S. states and sent 29 percent of those infected - mostly children - to the hospital.

We asked Nicole Wyre, DVM, DABVP, avian attending clinician and section head of exotic companion animal medicine & surgery at Penn Veterinary Medicine, to talk more about these outbreaks and how to safely handle exotic pets to prevent infections, and Shelley C. Rankin, PhD, chief of clinical microbiology and associate professor of microbiology at at Penn Veterinary Medicine about salmonella infections with cats and dogs.

How does salmonella spread from these pets to humans? Isn't this more of food-related infection?

Salmonella can be found normally in the feces of some animals.  If people are handling their pet and/or the pet's feces they can get the salmonella on their hands and then inadvertently touch around their face or mouth, and get this salmonella into their mouths.  Therefore, good handwashing techniques are imperative after handling any animal.

Are there other pets that are considered risky for carrying salmonella?

Historically, reptiles, amphibians and poultry have been blamed for salmonella in children, but salmonella can be seen in many pets and we are finding it in other species.  For instance, hedgehogs were recently implicated in salmonella outbreaks.  This just reinforces that we need to wash our hands after handling ALL animals and children need to be monitored when with animals to ensure that they are also washing their hands and faces after playing with their pets.

How common is it for pets to carry salmonella? Should I avoid having these pets completely?

Since salmonella can be intermittently shed in the feces of animals, you can never say for sure that an animal is "free from salmonella" no matter how many times you have their feces tested.  Therefore, it is difficult to definitely say how common or prevalent it is for a pet to carry salmonella.  As far as concerns for salmonella, there isn't one specific pet to avoid.  Educating the family on good hand washing and proper handling of all pets is the most important aspect of avoiding salmonella.

Does my exotic pet need to be treated for salmonella? Can I tell if my pet is carrying it?

Depending on the species of pet you have, salmonella can be a normal inhabitant of their GI tract and so it does not need to be treated.  It is very difficult to tell if your pet has salmonella because they intermittently shed it in their feces. You can test the feces, but a negative salmonella test just means they were not shedding it at the time the test was performed.

How should my child and I be handling pets that could carry salmonella?

Hands and faces should be washed after handling any pet, their feces or bedding and cages.  Children should be monitored while handling their pets to make sure the pets are not being placed too close to their face/mouth or on any surface that will come into contact with food.  For instance, no pets or their cages/tanks should be bathed or washed in the kitchen sink or allowed to walk on the kitchen table or any other food prep area.

What are some symptoms of salmonella infection?

Salmonella infections in humans mostly include gastrointestinal signs such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach pain that can also be associated with a fever. In general, these signs can be seen eight to 72 hours following infection.  Medical attention should be sought if these signs become severe, become prolonged or are associated with blood in the diarrhea, a high fever or dehydration. It’s best to consult with a medical professional for advice if you suspect salmonella infection.

Should I be concerned about getting salmonella from cats and dogs?

Dogs and cats can carry salmonella in their feces, as can many other pets. The number of animals that carry salmonella and show no clinical signs (have no diarrhea) is very small, which means the risk to owners is also very small. That being said, good basic hygiene practices are recommended when you come into contact with your dog or cats feces. Wash you hands after you pick up dog feces or clean the cat’s litter box.

Can I tell if my dog or cat is carrying salmonella? Does this require medical attention?

If your dog or cat has diarrhea, a fecal culture would have to be performed by your vet to test for salmonella. Once the results come back from the lab, your vet will decide whether or not to treat your pet.

Read more from the Healthy Kids blog »