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Salmonella, Pet Reptiles and Amphibians

What’s the Problem?

Exotic pet ownership has become increasingly popular with an estimated 4.9 million US households owning a reptile.1 However, most people do not think of the possible risk of having close contact with these animals. Germs including bacteria, viruses, and parasites that live in and on these animals can pose serious health threats when transmitted to people. One of the most common germs carried by amphibians (such as frogs and salamanders) and reptiles (such as snakes and turtles) is Salmonella. Reptiles and amphibians can shed Salmonella and other germs in their stool even if they appear healthy. Salmonella can cause illness in people including diarrhea, vomiting, and fever. The infection can also lead to severe diarrhea and dehydration, and may even be life-threatening, especially for young children and people with weakened immune systems (such as from cancer or HIV infection). Approximately 74,000 people in the US acquire Salmonella infection from reptiles and amphibians each year.2

Who’s at Risk?

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Not only are the pet owners at risk, but so are their family members and other close contacts. Children younger than 5 years, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems are at higher risk for a severe infection. Nearly 400 deaths occur in the US each year from Salmonella infections.3

Can It Be Prevented?

Owning amphibians and reptiles may not be the right choice for all families. Before adopting a pet, it is important to carefully consider what type of pet might be best for your family. Reptiles and amphibians are not recommended as pets for households with children younger than 5 years, elderly adults, and those with weakened immune systems. In addition, ownership of certain animals is illegal. For example, federal law makes it illegal to buy or sell turtles smaller than 4 inches. If a person wishes to own a reptile, they should only obtain them from a reputable source, such as a licensed business or pet store.

Keep yourself and your family healthy:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after
    • touching or feeding reptiles and amphibians,
    • handling the area where reptiles and amphibians live and move, and
    • touching water from the terrarium or aquarium of the reptile or amphibian.
  • Help children wash their hands properly after handling reptiles, amphibians, and their habitats as well. If soap and water are not readily available, use hand sanitizer and wash hands thoroughly as soon as possible. Thoroughly washing your hands will reduce your risk of getting sick from a disease spread to you by your pets.
  • Keep reptiles and amphibians out of childcare centers, kitchens, and other food preparation areas because they can spread germs like Salmonella.
  • Do not let children younger than 5 years handle or touch reptiles and amphibians without supervision. Children younger than 5 years are more likely to get sick from exposure to germs like Salmonella.
  • Don’t keep terrariums or aquariums for amphibians and reptiles in a child’s bedroom.
  • Don’t bathe turtles or clean their tanks in your kitchen or bathroom. Do this outside. If you must do it inside, use a tub or bin that is only used for your pet.

The Bottom Line

  • Owning amphibians and reptiles may not be the right choice for all families. Before adopting a pet, it is important to carefully consider what type of pet might be best for your family.
  • The best way to prevent infection is to always wash hands with soap and water right after contact with amphibians and reptiles or areas where they live and roam.
  • Amphibians and reptiles can transmit dangerous germs even if the animal isn’t ill.
  • Children younger than 5 years, the elderly, and individuals with sickle cell anemia or weakened immune systems are especially vulnerable to severe infections.

Case Example

Troy is a 5-month-old infant whose mom brought him to the emergency room after he became limp. For the previous 24 hours Troy had fever of 103 degrees and frequent watery diarrhea. Just before going limp, he had a large bloody stool. In the ER, the doctors noted that Troy was pale, whimpering, and severely dehydrated.   With appearing so ill and having bloody diarrhea, the doctors were worried about Salmonella infection. They drew blood and started IV fluids to resuscitate him.   Because his mental status was impaired, they performed a spinal tap to check for infection around his brain and spinal cord. Other lab studies included testing his blood, urine, and stool for infections including Salmonella. Troy was given antibiotics and admitted to the intensive care unit because he was so ill.

The ER team talked to Troy’s mother to try to figure out where he could have picked up Salmonella. They asked if there were any animals in the house. Troy’s mom reported that just 3 days ago at the Saturday swap meet, Troy’s 6-year-old sister, Trisha, bought a tiny turtle with a shell about 2 inches in size. Trisha named the turtle Raphael just like the Teen-Age Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon that she loved.  Trisha kissed Raphael and carried him non-stop when she wasn’t at school but she didn’t recall Troy being in contact with the turtle.  Trisha then spoke up and said she let Raphael kiss Troy too because she loved both of them.

Because of this severe illness, Troy’s mother decided that owning this type of turtle was not the right choice for their family. She knew turtles should not be released into the wild; therefore, she turned the turtle over to a wildlife sanctuary and reported the Saturday swap meet location and vendor information to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) District Office to help ensure that turtles wouldn’t continue to be sold and put other children at risk for illness.


  1. 2015-2016 APPA National Pet Owners Survey Statistics: Pet Ownership & Annual Expenses at
  2. Mermin J, Hutwagner L, Vugia D, Shallow S, Daily P, Bender J, et al. Reptiles, amphibians, and human Salmonella infection: a population-based, case-control study. Clin Infect Dis. 2004;38(Suppl 3):S253–61 10.1086/381594
  3. Burden of Foodborne Illness: Findings
  • Page last reviewed: September 15, 2017
  • Page last updated: September 15, 2017
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