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Special Considerations for Reptiles

By

Roger J. Klingenberg

, DVM

Last full review/revision Jul 2011 | Content last modified Nov 2016
Topic Resources

Most reptiles cannot tolerate much handling and do best when provided with an environment as close to their natural habitat as possible and then left alone. In addition, reptiles require specialized diets often involving live prey, fresh vegetation, and vitamin and/or mineral supplements. Because of these requirements, reptiles are pets best suited to adults or older children who will enjoy observing their pet’s behavior rather than playing with it.

Preventing the Spread of Disease from Your Reptile to You

It is extremely important that you practice good sanitation every time you come into contact with your reptile or anything from its environment.

  • Wash your hands with a disinfecting soap after handling the reptile and any of its environmental contents, especially after cleaning its cage and coming into contact with any animal droppings.

  • Use disposable gloves.

  • Disinfect the cage and its accessories often.

  • Do not eat, drink, or smoke while handling your reptile or cleaning its environment.

  • Do not kiss your pet reptile.

  • Do not clean your reptile’s cage or its contents in your kitchen or where any food preparation may take place.

  • Disinfect the sink, tub, or counter you use to clean these items immediately after cleaning them to reduce the potential of disease-causing organisms being transmitted to you or anything you may use in the near future.

  • Supervise children around the reptile.

  • If your nonvenomous reptile bites or scratches you, wash the injured area immediately with a disinfecting soap and then apply a topical antibiotic ointment. If any signs of infection (such as redness, swelling, pus, or fever) develop, contact a doctor as soon as possible because whole system antibiotics may be needed.

  • Do not keep venomous reptiles.

  • Take your reptile to a veterinarian and have the reptile tested for potentially harmful organisms.

Reptiles can transfer some disease-causing organisms to humans. Children under the age of 10, pregnant women, the elderly, and people with a weakened immune system are susceptible. Even if your reptile is not sick, it can still pass a disease-causing organism on to you. Salmonella species, Arizona species, and Edwardsiella species bacteria, as well as various parasites, fungi, and protozoa, are just some of the potential disease-causing organisms transmitted from reptiles that can cause disease in humans see Table: Diseases that can be Spread from Reptiles to People.

Table
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Diseases that can be Spread from Reptiles to People

Organism

Found in

Disease it Causes

Human Symptoms

Salmonella

Turtles and tortoises, lizards, and snakes

Salmonellosis

Upset stomach, cramps, diarrhea, fever, nausea, and vomiting; can become life-threatening

Edwardsiella

Turtles and tortoises, snakes

Gastroenteritis; neonatal sepsis and meningitis

Same as salmonellosis plus more life-threatening illnesses

Spirometra

Snakes

Sparganosis

Painful and inflamed skin nodules, swelling and inflammation around the eye, could travel to the brain

Pentastomes (Tongue worms)

Snakes

Pentastomid infections

Inflammation of the prostate gland, eye infection, watery eyes, stomach pain, nose discharge, difficulty breathing and swallowing, vomiting, headaches, low tolerance of light, abnormal protrusion of the eyeball

*Note: This is not a comprehensive list of infections passed from reptiles to people, but it does include the ones that are most common. (For a more detailed discussion of diseases you can catch from animals, see Introduction to Diseases Spread between Animals and People (Zoonoses).

Due to public health concerns, it is not recommended that you keep venomous snakes or reptiles as pets.

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