Reptiles and Amphibians
Credit: CDC would like to thank Kristine Smith, DVM, Diplomate of the American College of Zoological Medicine, for her careful review of these pages.
Millions of households in the United States own at least one reptile or amphibian. Reptiles include turtles, lizards, and snakes, and amphibians include frogs, salamanders, and caecilians.
Reptile and amphibian owners should be aware that their pets can carry germs that make people sick. One important germ is Salmonella. Salmonella is normally in the digestive tract of healthy reptiles and amphibians, but it can cause infections in people who have contact with reptiles, amphibians, and their environments, including the water from terrariums or aquariums where they live.
If you decide that a reptile or amphibian is the right pet for you, it is very important that you learn how to properly take care of it and become aware of diseases that it might carry. With routine veterinary care and some simple habits, you can reduce your risk of getting sick from touching, petting, or owning a reptile or amphibian.
Salmonella is the most common disease associated with reptiles and amphibians that can cause human illness. See information about Salmonella and other diseases linked to reptiles and amphibians below.
Aeromonas is a type of bacteria that is commonly found in fresh water ponds and aquariums. This germ can cause disease in fish and amphibians. Aeromonas can cause discoloration of the limbs of amphibians and fins of fish. It can also cause internal bleeding in these aquatic animals.
People can become infected through open wounds or by drinking contaminated water. Young children and adults with weak immune systems are most commonly affected and may have diarrhea or blood infections.
Maintaining good water quality in aquariums, promptly removing dead fish, and practicing healthy habits, including hand washing, will reduce the risk of Aeromonas infection.
Mycobacterium marinum spreads to fish, reptiles, and people through contaminated water or contact with infected animals. Infected animals may not show any signs of disease. Some affected animals develop open sores on their skin or have deformed bones.
People can become infected with Mycobacterium marinum by having direct contact with infected animals or contaminated water (for example, contaminated ponds or aquariums). The most common sign of infection is development of a skin infection. In very rare cases, the bacteria can spread throughout the body systems. Infections progress slowly and may get better on their own. In some instances, antibiotics and surgical wound treatments are required to prevent deep infection.
Salmonella spreads to people and animals through contaminated food or contact with the stools of certain animals, including reptiles and amphibians. An animal’s aquarium or terrarium may also be a source of Salmonella. Salmonella can be found in healthy reptiles and amphibians and doesn’t usually make them sick.
People exposed to Salmonella may have diarrhea, vomiting, fever, or abdominal cramps. Infants, elderly persons, and people with weakened immune systems are more likely than others to develop severe illness.
In this section
Healthy reptiles and amphibians can carry Salmonella and other germs that can make people sick. But there’s good news! You can keep yourself healthy around your pet reptiles and amphibians.
Reptiles and amphibians can carry germs that can make people sick, even when they appear healthy and clean. Always wash your hands thoroughly after handling reptiles and amphibians, and anything in the area where they live or roam such as their habitats, food, or equipment. Be sure to help children wash their hands properly. If soap and water are not readily available, use hand sanitizer immediately and wash hands thoroughly as soon as possible. Thoroughly washing your hands will help reduce your risk of getting sick from a disease spread to you by your pets.
- Children younger than 5 years of age, people with weak immune systems, and adults older than 65 years of age should not handle or touch amphibians or reptiles or their environment because they are at a higher risk for serious illness and hospitalization from Salmonella
- Don’t cross-contaminate! You don’t have to touch a reptile or amphibian to get sick from their germs. Be aware that any reptile food such as frozen or live rodents, equipment, and materials, including the tank water, can be contaminated with Salmonella and other germs.
- Keep your reptiles and amphibians and their equipment out of the kitchen or anywhere in the home where food is prepared, stored, served, or consumed. Never use food-preparation areas to clean reptile and amphibian habitats or anything in their habitats. These items should be cleaned outside of your home. If you clean the habitat in the bathroom, thoroughly clean and disinfect the area right afterwards.
- Prevent bites and scratches. Don’t kiss or bring reptiles or amphibians close to your face, as this may frighten them and increase your chances of being bitten.
- Reptiles and amphibians might not be right for your family because of their risk for spreading germs to people. This is particularly true if you have children under 5 years of age, adults over 65 years of age, or people with weak immune systems living in your household. People with weak immune systems may include people with an illness such as diabetes or HIV/AIDS, or those undergoing chemotherapy.
Did you know that the sale of turtles less than 4 inches has been banned in the United States since 1975? This is because small turtles pose a higher risk of spreading disease, especially to children. The ban by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has prevented an estimated 100,000 cases of Salmonella each year in children.
If you buy a pet turtle, only buy one with a shell longer than 4 inches from a trusted pet store.
- Research and learn how to properly care for reptiles and amphibians before buying or adoption. Ask your veterinarian about the proper food, care, environment, and other requirements of the pet you are interested in adopting.
- Don’t catch wild reptiles or amphibians and keep them as pets.
- Don’t buy turtles less than 4 inches in length (about the size of a deck of cards or a cell phone). Federal law bans the sale of these small turtles, even though they might be sold in souvenir shops and at roadside stands. If you want to have turtles as pets, buy turtles with shells longer than 4 inches from a trusted pet store.
- Check state, local, and property laws before selecting or purchasing a reptile or amphibian. Some reptiles or amphibians may not be allowed in apartments or rental homes.
- It is important that you provide your reptile or amphibian with a safe, warm, and comfortable environment that has the appropriate humidity or moisture levels.
- Reptiles and amphibians often have very specific requirements for their habitat.
- Learning about proper management of your reptile or amphibian and taking good care of the animal can decrease your pet’s stress and chance of illness.
- To prevent contamination, keep amphibians and reptiles out of kitchens and other areas where food and drinks are prepared, served, or consumed.
- Do not allow reptiles or amphibians to roam freely throughout a home or living area. This keeps pets and people safer and healthier.
- Do not allow pet reptiles and amphibians to interact with wild animals.
- Be aware that reptile and amphibian habitats such as terrariums and aquariums can be contaminated with Salmonella and other germs.
- Tanks, feeders, water containers, and other equipment or materials used when caring for amphibians and reptiles should be cleaned outside the home.
- If you clean these items in the bathroom, thoroughly clean and disinfect the area right afterwards.
- Visit a veterinarian experienced in reptile and amphibian care (herpetology) for routine evaluation and care to keep your reptile or amphibian as healthy as possible. A veterinarian will not be able to prevent your reptile or amphibian from shedding Salmonella because Salmonella is a normal bacteria found in healthy reptiles and amphibians.
- If your reptile or amphibian becomes sick or dies soon after purchase, take your pet to the veterinarian promptly and inform the pet store or breeder about the pet’s illness or death. Consider waiting before purchasing or adopting another pet. Do not use the habitat until it has been properly cleaned and disinfected.
- Do not release your pet outdoors. This isn’t good for the animal or for the environment. Most reptiles and amphibians released outdoors will die, and some grow to become a threat to natural wildlife populations.
- Find a new home for your pet:
- Consider giving your pet to another experienced reptile or amphibian owner.
- Contact a nearby pet store for advice on rehoming your pet.
- Contact a local pet rescue group to see if they can help rehome your pet.
- Contact a local aquarium or zoo to see if they would accept your pet.
Not all reptiles have teeth, although bites from the ones that do can be very dangerous, some even venomous (venoms are poisons made by some animals). Reptiles without teeth, like most turtles, are still capable of painful bites. Don’t kiss or bring reptiles or amphibians close to your face, as this may frighten them and increase your chances of being bitten.
Bites from animals with teeth can be very dangerous because they can spread germs and other toxic substances from the mouth of the animal to the wound. See more information about how to respond to snake bites.
Germs can be spread from pet bites and scratches, even if the wound does not seem deep or serious. If you are bitten or scratched by a reptile or amphibian, you should:
- Wash wounds with warm soapy water immediately.
- Seek medical attention, especially if:
- The animal appears sick.
- The wound is serious.
- The wound becomes red, painful, warm or swollen.
- The animal is known to be venomous or produce toxic substances.
Ensure that the animal is seen by a veterinarian if it becomes sick or dies after biting a person.
CDC does not recommend keeping venomous animals as pets or in household settings.
Venoms are a defense that reptiles and amphibians use to protect themselves from any potential dangers or harm in their environment.
Venomous animals can sometimes be easily identified by their bright colorations and markings, such as the poison dart frog and coral snake, although not all venomous animals are so easy to identify. Animals can transmit venoms through bites or through contact with their skin or saliva. For example, poison dart frogs are beautiful animals that excrete deadly toxins through their skin. It has been reported that one frog can produce enough toxin to kill 10 adults.
There are many different types of venomous reptiles and amphibians throughout the world. In the United States, there are only four native types of venomous snakes (coral snakes, rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, and copperheads) and one venomous lizard (the Gila monster), though non-native animals have found their way into the United States through the pet trade.
You should always consider the unpredictable nature of venomous animals and be aware that treating a bite from a venomous animal is difficult. Venoms are very toxic and can have severe and life-threatening effects. Vials of anti-venom, used to treat some bites, can cost hundreds of dollars and may not be available at community hospitals.
If you choose to keep or work with venomous animals, you should make a list of all the hospitals in your area that stock anti-venom for the types of animals you will be around. Put a list of those hospital phone numbers and addresses somewhere easily found, like on your refrigerator or near the animal’s habitat.
Learn more about venomous snakes, symptoms associated with snake bites, and first aid techniques.
- Seek immediate medical attention (even if the bite or area affected does not seem serious).
- Call your healthcare provider as soon as possible so that they can prepare the anti-venom.
- Tell your healthcare provider you were bitten by a venomous animal.
- Be as clear as possible about the type, colors, and markings of the animal.
- Remain as calm and still as possible until you can be treated by a healthcare provider.
- The sooner you go to the hospital, the easier it will be for your health care provider to treat you and for you to recover.
- Learn more about venomous snake bites and how to prevent them.
Brochures and posters
Selecting an Amphibian
Brochure, American Veterinary Medical Association
Selecting a Reptile
Brochure, American Veterinary Medical Association
Safe Reptile Handling
Poster; Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council
Trouble with Tiny Turtles
Take Care with Pet Reptiles and Amphibians|
Safe Handling of Pet Reptiles & Amphibians
Reptile and amphibian-associated outbreaks
Lizard-Associated Salmonellosis – Utah. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 1992 Aug 21; 41(33):610-611.
Multistate Outbreak of Human Salmonella Typhimurium Infections Associated with Aquatic Frogs — United States, 2009 . Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 2010 jan 8; 58(51 &52):1433-1436.
Multistate Outbreak of Human Salmonella Typhimurium Infections Associated with Pet Turtle Exposure — United States, 2008. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 2010 Feb 26; 59(07):191-196.
Multistate Outbreak of Human Salmonella Infections Associated with Exposure to Turtles — United States, 2007–2008. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 2008 Jan 25; 57(03):69-72.
Reptile-Associated Salmonellosis — Selected States, 1998–2002. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 2003 Dec 12; 52(49):1206-1209.
Reptile-Associated Salmonellosis — Selected States, 1996-1998. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 1999 Nov 12; 48(44):1009-1013.
Recent Multistate Outbreaks of Human Salmonella Infections Acquired from Turtles: A Continuing Public Health Challenge. Clinical Infectious Diseases 2010; 50(4):554-559.
Salmonellosis Associated with Pet Turtles — Wisconsin and Wyoming, 2004. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 2005 Mar 11; 54(09):223-226.
Salmonella enterica serotype Javiana infections associated with amphibian contact, Mississippi, 2001, Epidemiology and Infection. 2004 Apr; 132(2):273–281.
Turtle-Associated Salmonellosis in Humans — United States, 2006–2007. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 2007 Jul 6;56(26):649-652.
Water Frogs, Aquariums, and Salmonella — Oh My!
CDC Kidtastics Podcast
Don’t Kiss a Frog!
CDC Kidtastics Podcast
Spanish version: ¡No beses al sapo!
Salmonella Infection and Water Frogs
Minute of Health Podcast: Wash Away Salmonella
CDC Minute of Health
The Trouble with Turtles
Minute of Health Podcast: The Trouble with Turtles
CDC Minute of Health
The Trouble with Tiny Turtles
AVMA Market research statistics – U.S. pet ownership – 2007
American Veterinary Medical Association
CDC National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
CDC Snakes: Pictorial Key to Venomous Species in the United States [PDF – 4 pages]
CDC National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
An organization in partnership with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that provides information about conservation and includes resources for finding new homes for unwanted aquatic pets
Importation of Turtles
Outlines information about bringing a turtle, snake, or lizard into the United States. CDC Animal Importation site
Information from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about venomous lizards
Poison dart frogs: Jewels of the Rainforest
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
How to Prevent or Respond to a Snake Bite
CDC National Centers for Environmental Health and Injury Prevention and Control
- Page last reviewed: October 1, 2015
- Page last updated: July 12, 2018
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