Exotic Pets In the Home May Lead to Illness
< Oct. 08, 2008 > -- In some cases, exposing your children to the joys of exotic pet ownership may also mean exposing them to infections and injuries.
Exotic pets like rodents, reptiles and monkeys can carry disease. Parents need to be aware of the dangers - including salmonella infection and even monkey pox - of owning such nontraditional pets as rodents, reptiles, monkeys and more, says a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) published in the October issue of the medical journal Pediatrics.
The report is the first comprehensive statement on the topic, says study co-author Dr. Robert Frenck, a pediatrics professor at Cincinnati Children's Hospital and a member of the AAP committee on infectious diseases.
"Nontraditional pets are becoming more traditional, and nontraditional pets can expose kids to disease they otherwise might not be exposed to," Dr. Frenck says. "If parents are thinking about having these nontraditional pets, they may want to talk to a veterinarian and/or pediatrician first to see if there is any real concern."
In fact, healthcare professionals such as pediatricians and veterinarians can offer advice on proper pet selection and provide information about safe pet ownership and responsibility to minimize risks to owners and other members of the household, according to the AAP.
Numbers of Exotic Pets On the Rise
Nontraditional pets are becoming increasingly popular among a pet-loving public as choices in lifestyle dictate the need for smaller or more unusual pets. The number of exotic animals in the United States has increased 75 percent since 1992, according to the report.
The AAP reports that the US Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that 365,000 birds were imported legally into the US in 2002; and 87,991 mammals (including 29 species of rodents), 1.3 million reptiles and 203 million fish were imported in 2005. Reptiles are now in 4.4 million homes, and 40,000 households now harbor hedgehogs.
The risks are real. There has been a sharp increase in public health concerns related to human contact with nontraditional pets, specifically exotic animals. A primary reason for these concerns is the lack of health screenings for animals that are caught in the wild and brought to the US. There is also potential mixing of animal species in holding locations where there may be exposure to incubating illness, or carriers of pathogens.
Diseases Linked To Pets
Exotic animals that have been imported to the US have been linked to the introduction of infectious agents otherwise not present in the US.
In 2003, a human monkey pox outbreak was traced back to imported African Gambian rats that had infected prairie dogs sold as pets. Small pet turtles were responsible for 103 cases of salmonella infection in the second half of last year, mostly in young children, the report states.
The AAP details a number of diseases potentially transmitted by these more unusual pets: Reptiles have a high rate of carrying different strains of salmonella, as do turtles, baby poultry, including chicks and hamsters.
Plague is carried by wild rodents and transmitted to humans handling infected animals, including domestic cats, that have been bitten by fleas. And macaque monkeys carry the herpes B virus.
And animals do not have to be in the home to pose a risk. More than 55 outbreaks of disease in humans, including infection with E. coli bacteria, involved animals in public settings from 1991 to 2005.
People At Risk
Children under 5 years old are at particular risk due to their size and behavior, and partly because their immune systems are still developing. Adults with weakened immune systems, the elderly, and pregnant women are also at greater risk.
"The real problem comes with people who have weakened immune systems and are exposed to a bacteria or virus from one of these pets", says Dr. Jonathan Field, emeritus director of the pediatric allergy and asthma clinic at New York University/Bellevue Medical Center in New York City.
The AAP recommends these safety and preventive measures:
Always consult your physician for more information.
For more information on health and wellness, please visit health information modules on this Web site.
Exotic Pets Pose Risk of Disease, Injury
Owning a monkey, iguana or other exotic animal may seem like a way to add a little excitement to your life, but health experts say it is best to stick with more mundane creatures when looking for a pet.
"Buying or giving exotic pets such as monkeys, hedgehogs, prairie dogs, reptiles, or other wildlife potentially can be dangerous to both humans and the animals themselves," says veterinarian Dr. Jane C. Mahlow, a veterinary infectious disease specialist in Houston.
Exotic animals can bring with them dangerous, sometimes deadly diseases. African pigmy hedgehogs and reptiles such as snakes, lizards, turtles, and iguanas, for instance, carry strains of Salmonella bacteria in their intestines.
Salmonella bacteria do not make the animal sick. In people the bacteria can cause serious cases of severe diarrhea, fever, vomiting, abdominal cramps, or even death, especially in the elderly, young children, and those with a weakened immune system. A person can pick up the bacteria from another person who handles the reptile or from household surfaces the animal may have touched.
"Everyone who touches the reptile or its cage should always wash their hands afterward," Dr. Mahlow says. "Also, the kitchen sink is no place to bathe reptiles or to wash their dishes, cage, or aquarium." Reptiles should not be loose to roam around the house; Salmonella can live on furniture and in carpets.
Monkeys, too, seem irresistible with their child-like qualities and humorous antics. But macaques and Asian monkeys including the rhesus, commonly carry the herpes B virus. Like Salmonella in reptiles, herpes B causes no noticeable disease in macaques. But in humans, the virus (also known as monkey B virus or simply B virus) leads to an illness that can cause death. Monkey bites are the primary way humans get herpes B virus.
"Wild animals are best left in the wild," Dr. Mahlow says. They can be unpredictable, possibly posing a threat to people of severe attack. And rabies from wild animals is always a concern.
Wild animals themselves can face almost as many problems living in captivity. Most will not live long in the average household. Their diets are different from those of domestic pets, and the wrong food can lead to serious nutritional deficiencies. Many require as much care and attention as a human infant. And while cute and cuddly as a baby, an animal may become aggressive or moody as it matures. Releasing a wild animal back into nature after months or years in captivity is usually a death sentence for the animal.
Complicating the problems for wild and exotic animals is the growth of sales on the Internet. Hundreds of sites offer all types of animals from alpacas to zebras. For a hefty price, sellers as far away as New Zealand can provide reindeer, llamas, camels, kangaroos, iguanas, parrots, pythons, marsupials, or any of dozens of other creatures.
Various restrictions apply to owning and importing different animals. For instance, federal public health regulations prohibit selling turtles less than 4 inches long because of Salmonella risks. Importing non-human primates into the United States as pets is also prohibited.
There are also restrictions on owning endangered or fur-bearing animals such as raccoons, beavers, mink, muskrats, and opossums. Other regulations restrict importation of livestock, as well as importing or exporting or transporting species of foxes indigenous to North America, coyotes, or raccoons.
"Animals are not ornaments or oddities to show off," Dr. Mahlow says. "The selection of a pet needs to be based on family considerations, the time available to devote to the animal, and the safety and health precautions required."
Always consult your physician for more information.