News story

Reptiles pose a risk of salmonella infection

PHE advise maintaining hand hygiene when handling snakes to avoid getting a salmonella infection.

Public Health England (PHE) is investigating a number of cases of gastroenteritis caused by Salmonella Enteritidis PT8. This is linked to exposure to reptiles, in particular to snakes. There have been 70 cases of this type of salmonella across England, so far in 2015.

Professor Jeremy Hawker, a salmonella expert at PHE said:

It is already well established that there is a risk of salmonella associated with pet reptiles. Reptiles, including snakes, have long been known to carry particular types of salmonella, most carry salmonella in their gut and shed the bacteria in their droppings. These droppings can quickly spread over the reptile’s skin and any surface or object they come into contact with including cages, toys, clothes, furniture and household surfaces.

Raw or frozen mice used as snake feed may be the principle route of disease transmission in this outbreak. Such feeder mice have previously been found to be a source of salmonella and present a risk to those who handle them.

Babies and children under 5 are particularly at risk from infection. Children who had no contact with reptiles can also get infected indirectly through the reptile handler or by contamination of the environment. However, many children can be curious and like to handle and stroke pet reptiles and as a result their hands and fingers become contaminated. Added to this, children do not have fully developed immune systems and so are therefore at increased risk of becoming severely ill following exposure to salmonella.

To reduce the risk of developing a salmonella infection, reptile owners are advised to:

  • always wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water immediately after handling your reptile, their cage or any other equipment such as soaking pools
  • defrost frozen feeds on newspaper or kitchen towels preferably overnight, and away from food and food preparation surfaces and equipment and avoid defrosting in warm water or microwave as this can lead to a risk of cross contamination
  • always wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water immediately after feeding your reptile, in particular after handling raw (frozen or defrosted) mice, rats or chicks
  • ensure that all surfaces that have come into contact with the defrosting food are cleaned thoroughly afterwards
  • not eat or drink while handling your reptile or its food and associated equipment
  • always supervise children to ensure that they do not put your reptile, or objects that the reptile has been in contact with, near their mouths, and wash their hands thoroughly with soap and water immediately after handling your reptile or such objects
  • keep your reptile out of rooms where food is prepared and eaten
  • limit the parts of the house where your reptile is allowed to roam freely
  • not use kitchen sinks to bathe your reptile, wash their cage or equipment or defrost feed and if you use a bathroom sink or bathtub, it must be cleaned thoroughly with disinfectant afterwards
  • dispose of waste water, droppings and urine from your reptile down the toilet instead of a sink or bathtub

If you or other family members become ill with symptoms such as diarrhoea, fever, abdominal pain or vomiting, consult your doctor and inform the doctor that you own or keep a reptile.

Salmonella is a bacterium that is naturally found in the gut of many animals, including reptiles. This bacterium can spread from the animals to cause infection in people, in most just causing a mild illness with diarrhoea, fever, abdominal pain and nausea, but children and babies can develop more serious illness. Just over 1% of the population own or keep reptiles in England.

Guidance on Salmonella: reducing infection from reptiles is available on the PHE website.

Image by Steve Smith. Used under Flickr Creative Commons.

PHE Press Office, infections

61 Colindale Avenue