Thinking of welcoming a new reptile addition to the family this holiday? Have children under 5 years? Hold that thought – new research published online in the Archives of Disease in Childhood finds young children have an increased risk of Salmonella infection from pet reptiles and amphibians.

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Exposure to reptiles that are kept indoors, such as iguanas, bearded dragons, snakes, chameleons and geckos, is associated with reptile-associated salmonellosis at a younger age and more invasive disease.

Ownership of exotic reptiles has soared in recent years as families increasingly opt for low-maintenance pets such as bearded dragons and geckos. Currently in the UK, the British Federation of Herpetologists estimates that there are more reptiles kept as pets than dogs.

Previous research has identified some cases of young children experiencing reptile-associated salmonellosis (RAS) from pet reptiles and amphibians, particularly in infants and preschool children.

The aim of this new research was to determine the proportion of Salmonella cases in children aged under 5 years that were RAS and to compare the severity of illness with non-reptile-exposed salmonellosis groups.

The researchers investigated all cases of salmonellosis in children under 5 years in the South West area of the UK, covering the counties of Dorset, Somerset, Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly identified between January 2010-December 2013.

Individual health records were reviewed to identify the cause of infection, if the patient had been exposed to reptiles, and also if the case had been hospitalized as a result of the infection.

In humans, characteristics of infection include gastroenteritis, enteric fever, bacteria in the blood (bacteremia) or of the bones (osteomyelitis), abscess formation and meningitis.

Of 250 recognized cases of salmonellosis among preschoolers, 75 were excluded due to incomplete information. Among the remaining 175, more than 1 in 4 (48 children) had exposure to reptiles (27.4%).

The RAS cases had a median age of 6 months old, which was significantly different to that of the non-RAS cases that had perhaps become infected as a result of food poisoning, with a median age of 1 year.

The cases exposed to reptiles were more severe, with these children 2.5 times more likely to be admitted to the hospital for treatment than non-RAS cases.

Significantly more of the children under 12 months old with reptile-associated cases were hospitalized (50%), compared with 19% of non-RAS cases under 12 months of age.

Invasive disease occurred in 17% of RAS cases. Five had bacteremia, two had meningitis and one had colitis requiring surgery. These results were significantly more than the 3% of non-RAS cases, three of which were bacteremia and one with meningitis.

The study found reptile exposure in over a quarter of all reported Salmonella cases in children under 5 years in South West England.

The authors comment:

While crawling and undergoing developmental stages that include oral exploration, the younger child would be particularly at risk of contracting Salmonella shed from a reptile sharing the same space.”

Reptiles excrete Salmonella from their gut, and children, particularly those under 12 months old, may become infected with Salmonella by sharing a living space with them, say the researchers.

Salmonella carried by reptiles tend to be different from those that cause food poisoning, the authors note, and they suggest that further work is required to inform the public of this risk and allow parents to make an informed choice around pet selection and the potential health risks to their young children.

Medical News Today recently reported that feeding dogs and cats raw meat, rather than commercial pet food, might cause severe sickness and even death in some animals from contamination from various pathogens, including Salmonella.