Salmonella is a bacterium that causes salmonellosis – an infection that manifests as diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and fever after 12-72 hours of being infected.
Snakes carry salmonella in their intestinal tract without any signs of illness. But, even if you don’t touch your snake, you can get infected because salmonella in snake excrement can contaminate anything they come in contact with – including your snake’s enclosure, its food, water dishes, and your vivarium décor.
The risk of being infected by salmonella from a snake can be reduced by taking the right precautions. This includes always washing your hands after handling your snake or cleaning its enclosure. Spot cleaning your snake’s feces and urates, and disinfecting the cage once a week can also help prevent the bacteria from being transmitted to humans.
What is Salmonellosis?
Salmonellosis is an infection caused by the bacterium, salmonella. The infection typically affects the intestines, but it can occur in the bloodstream as well. It is among the most common causes of diarrheal illness in people, which according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, causes nearly 20,000 hospitalizations and 400 deaths in the US annually.
The bacteria can spread from a snake to a human when an object contaminated with snake droppings is placed in the mouth. Children can get infected by drinking from bottles contaminated with snake feces. In 2008, fifteen out of 448 salmonellosis cases were caused by recent contact with reptiles, out of which nine were less than one year of age.
Salmonella is one of the most common germs carried by reptiles and amphibians. Research published in the journal, Pathogens, states that the increasing demand for exotic pets, such as snakes, may also increase the likelihood of salmonellosis in people.
However, it is crucial to keep in mind that almost all animals carry salmonella – it just takes some proper cleaning and common sense to prevent an infection.
What Causes Salmonella in Reptiles?
Almost all reptiles carry salmonella in their intestinal tract. In a study published in the Journal of Veterinary Medical Science, 100 percent of snakes from a pet store in Japan were tested positive for salmonella. In general, animals get infected with salmonella from their mothers before they are born, through their environment or by consuming contaminated food.
In snakes, raw or frozen mice may be a primary route of bacterial transmission. Mice that carry salmonella present a significant risk for individuals handling them as well.
Snakes carrying salmonella shed the bacteria when they defecate, contaminating their body and any other area where the animal roams and lives in. However, note that animals that carry salmonella still appear healthy and don’t show any signs of illness.
How to Tell If Your Snake Has Salmonella
Even though most reptiles carry salmonella in their gut, it’s almost impossible to tell if your pet has been infected as most of them show no signs of illness or poor health.
There are over 2200 strains of salmonella that can infect most animals. The bacteria will not cause any symptoms to its host, but can cause illness in the species it has been passed on to.
Therefore, even if salmonellosis is asymptomatic in your snake, the bacterium can cause unpleasant symptoms in humans when transferred.
Although rare, if your pet does manifest symptoms of salmonellosis, symptoms may include unexplained weight loss, diarrhea, dehydration, and lethargy. However, these symptoms can also indicate a different issue in snakes. For example, poor husbandry measures, such as improper humidity and temperature levels inside the cage can cause the same symptoms in snakes.
You should be concerned if your snake has severe diarrhea. In any case, if you notice anything unusual, it’s best to get advice from your vet and let them decide the cause of the condition.
Your vet will test for salmonella in your snake through fecal samples, rectal swabs, and environmental swabs. However, it is possible for these tests to give false negatives as the bacteria may not always be present in your snake’s feces. Therefore, your vet will have to obtain different samples at different times to determine whether your pet has salmonella.
Can You Treat Salmonella Infection in Snakes?
Salmonella cannot be eradicated from the intestinal tract of reptiles. Administering antibiotics to eliminate salmonella has been unsuccessful in the past and may also increase the risk of a more antibiotic-resistant strain of salmonella.
Who is Most at Risk of Salmonella?
Babies and children under the age of 5 are especially at risk of salmonella infections. Children don’t have fully developed immune systems, so they’re at higher risk of getting severely sick after being exposed to salmonella.
A child who has had no contact with a reptile can be infected by the reptile’s handler or via environmental contamination, such as contaminated floors. Also, many children may attempt to stroke or handle a pet snake, resulting in contamination of their hands or fingers.
Pregnant women, elderly or frail individuals and people with immunosuppressing conditions, such as HIV or cancer also have a high risk of salmonella infection, and severe complications of salmonellosis as their immune systems aren’t functioning optimally enough to ward off or cope with an infection.
What Are the Symptoms of Salmonella Infection?
Salmonella infection may result in the following symptoms:
- Painful stomach cramps
- Diarrhea, which can also be bloody
Other illnesses can also lead to the same symptoms. Therefore, it is important that you consult a doctor to determine whether you have salmonellosis.
How to Diagnose a Salmonella Infection
To diagnose salmonellosis, your doctor may start by performing a physical examination and asking some questions, such as what you ate recently. Your doctor may also ask for a stool sample, which will be tested in a lab for salmonella.
In healthy children and adults, the symptoms of salmonellosis are usually not severe so a doctor might not prescribe any medicine or treatment. Symptoms typically last for a few days, and after one week, most people start feeling healthy again.
However, if you notice any severe symptoms in a high-risk individual, such as a small baby, a pregnant woman or someone with conditions such as HIV or cancer, see a doctor immediately. The doctor may perform some tests to determine the best course of treatment for them.
Salmonella Prevention and Precautions
With arboreal and terrestrial reptiles, such as snakes, avoiding salmonella infection is easy. Ensuring that the sanitation in and around your snake’s enclosure is maintained can help reduce your risk of infection significantly.
1) Spot Clean Quickly
Inspect your snake’s cage for feces and urates that need to be removed. Get rid of them with a reptile scoop or paper towels and dispose of them.
Removing your snake feces swiftly will prevent the bacteria from being transferred to the bedding and the rest of the enclosure. As an added precautionary method to keep your vivarium clean, you should also scoop out about a handful of the substrate surrounding the dropping.
2) Wear Gloves
Always wear gloves and a face mask while cleaning your snake’s enclosure. This will prevent the bacteria from getting in contact with your hands and face.
Once you’ve finished cleaning or handling your snake, remove your gloves and wash your hands thoroughly with warm, soapy water for 20 seconds. You must also wash your hands after touching your snake feed, its water bowl or any other object inside the snake enclosure.
Always wash your hands before preparing or handling any food. If you are unable to wash your hands, use a hand sanitizer until you’re able to wash your hands thoroughly.
3) Prevent Food Contamination
Avoid letting reptiles have access to your dining room, kitchen or any other area of the house where food is served, eaten or prepared. Never use kitchen sinks, bathroom sinks, bathtubs, and kitchen counters to clean your snake, its water dish or aquarium.
4) Keep a Separate Tub for Your Snake
You should also not allow your reptile to have any contact with an area where infants are bathed, such as sinks or bathroom tubs. To prevent contamination, keep a plastic basin or tub exclusively for your snake to bathe or soak in.
Feces or wastewater from your snake’s water dish or soaking tub should be disposed of in the toilet, instead of a sink, bathtub or a shower drain.
5) Disinfect Regularly
Wash your snake’s water bowl with hot soapy water every time you have to change its water.
Disinfect water dishes, vivarium décor and the aquarium with a household bleach solution (1 tablespoon of bleach to 4 cups of water) or chlorhexidine at least once in 1-2 weeks. Discard any remaining disinfectant solution that has been soiled during cleaning.
Clean the habitat outside of your house, if possible. A suitable area would be one that isn’t frequently accessed by children, immunocompromised individuals or older adults. Avoid cleaning the habitat near sources of food, even if it’s outside – this includes crop fields and gardens.
Rinse all disinfected equipment with clean water before placing your snake back in its cage.
6) Wash Your Clothes After Handling
You must also launder all your clothes and your children’s clothes after handling your reptile or cleaning its cage. Never eat, drink or smoke while handling your snake or cleaning its cage.
7) Keep Your Snake Caged
Try keeping your snake in its enclosure or restricting areas of the house where it is allowed to roam free. Make sure you disinfect the floors and anything else your snake comes in contact with and finish by washing your hands thoroughly with hot, soapy water once your snake is back in its cage.
8) Be Careful with Snake Feed
If you’re using frozen mice, make sure you defrost them on layers of newspaper or kitchen towels overnight. Keep the mice away from any food preparation surfaces and equipment as snake feed can carry salmonella as well.
You must also avoid defrosting the mice in hot water or your microwave oven to reduce the risk of cross-contamination and prevent the mice from getting cooked. Wash your hands after handling snake food and feeding your snake with hot, soapy water.
Small babies, young children, pregnant women, elderly and people immunosuppressed diseases have a higher risk of getting infected and experiencing severe complications of salmonella infection.
Therefore, it’s critical that they take added precautions. Ideally, they should avoid any contact with reptiles or their cage to prevent getting infected.
Should I Keep My Snake if I’m Expecting a Child?
Salmonella infection can only occur via ingestion. Therefore, following the right sanitation methods, disinfecting surfaces your baby may come in contact with and preventing your child from touching your snake or any of its belongs are excellent ways of reducing salmonella infection in children.
The Association of Reptilian and Amphibian Veterinarians advise snake owners with children to discuss the precautions necessary to minimize risk linked to owners handling their reptiles. Make sure you supervise your children while they’re handling reptiles and never allow them to bring your pet too close to their face or mouth. They must also never place an object that your reptile came into contact with into their mouths.
Reptiles should also never be kept in child care centers, schools, nurseries and any other facility that handles children five years and under.
Salmonella poisoning can only occur if you ingest the bacteria that only occurs via fecal contamination, so the risk of very low. According to the CDC, if an individual is hospitalized for being infected by salmonella, they only have less than 1% risk of experiencing complications.
Following the right precautions and maintaining a sanitary environment can significantly reduce your risk of infection, with exceptions, such as small babies and pregnant women.
Just be sure to inform your children never to catch wild reptiles and keep them as pets. Never release unwanted reptiles to the environment either as this isn’t good for your pet or the environment. If you can’t keep your snake anymore, call a local pet store or reptile rescue.