Snakes, lizards and tortoises have become popular pets, but owners of these and other reptiles must take precautions because they can harbor Salmonella – a potentially dangerous bacteria that can cause severe illness in humans.

"An estimated 70,000 people get Salmonella from contact with reptiles in the United States each year," said Richard J. Baltaro, M.D., Ph.D., FCAP, a pathologist and associate professor of pathology at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. "If you have a reptile as a pet you have to be extremely cautious when dealing with it."

Dr. Baltaro is a pathologist-a physician who treats patients with illnesses such as Salmonella through laboratory medicine. Dr. Baltaro received a Ph.D. in microbiology while studying the DNA antibiotic resistance in Salmonella bacteria.

In addition to reptiles, other animals such as baby chicks and ducklings can carry Salmonella. "Pocket pets" including rats, mice, rabbits, gerbils, hamsters, guinea pigs and ferrets, as well as rodents that are bought to feed other animals (such as snakes), can also carry potentially dangerous bacteria.

To help prevent infections, anyone owning, buying or handling these animals should take the following precautions:

  • Buy animals that look lively and alert and that have glossy coats that are free of droppings.
  • Don’t purchase a pet that shares a cage with other animals that have diarrhea or look sick.
  • Always wash hands thoroughly after cleaning up pets’ droppings.
  • Ensure that children wash their hands immediately after handling rodents or their feces.
  • Supervise young children if they clean the pet’s cage.
  • Don’t smoke or eat food while handling your pet.
  • Don’t handle pets in areas where food is prepared.
  • Don’t kiss your pet or hold it close to your mouth.