Sept. 8, 2004 -- Reptiles are popular pets, but they may not be the best choice for families with children younger than 5.
That's because reptiles such as lizards, turtles, and snakes can carry salmonella, a bacterium that can cause many health problems, from diarrhea, fever, and stomachaches to potentially fatal infections of other organs.
Usually, people get the salmonella from eating contaminated foods such as chicken or eggs. Animals can be the source of infection because they have the bacteria in their feces. People can get salmonella if they do not wash their hands after touching the feces of animals.
Children younger than 5 are particularly vulnerable to salmonella.
For that reason, the CDC has recommended that children younger than 5 and others with weakened immune systems, such as organ transplant, HIV/AIDS, or cancer patients, should avoid contact with reptiles.
The advice isn't always taken.
Researcher Eden Wells, MD, MPH, of the University of Michigan, and colleagues studied salmonella records from Michigan's Department of Community Health.
They found that almost 12% of salmonella cases in Michigan children younger than 5 from January 2001 to June 2003 were linked to reptiles.
Of these reptile-associated cases in children, 72% occurred in babies 1 year old or younger, and 28% affected infants 2 months old or younger.
Kids older than 5 fared better. Of some 1,000 salmonella reports for preschool and school-age children, only 5% were associated with reptiles. The report appears in the Sept. 1 issue of the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.
Overall, reptile contact accounts for up to 7% of America's 1.4 million annual salmonella cases.
Salmonella can be directly transmitted by handling a reptile. It can also be indirectly transmitted by touching an object contaminated by a reptile or its feces.
Citing statistics from the American Veterinary Medical Association, the researchers say as many as 2.8 million reptiles were owned as pets in the U.S. in 2001.
"Reptile ownership is a significant risk for salmonellosis," says Wells in a news release.
Basic hygiene can help protect against infection.
People of all ages should wash their hands after handling reptiles. The pets' area should be kept clean, and reptiles should not be allowed to roam around the house if small children might crawl through the same areas.
But for kids younger than 5, the safest strategy may be avoiding reptiles completely.