Pocket Pets Pose Risk of Salmonella

That Hamster, Just Wash Up After

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By Christina Elston

Hamsters, guinea pigs and other pocket pets are cute, cuddly - and possibly infectious. That's what researchers from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found when they studied a 2004 outbreak of salmonella in children.

Their research, published in a recent issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, linked the outbreak to pet rodents. It was the first time such a connection had been made.

When it infects the small intestines of humans, salmonella bacteria can cause a mild to severe illness with diarrhea. Most often, people are infected when they eat contaminated food or undercooked meat.

Experts have long known that pet reptiles can carry the bacteria in their intestinal tract and pass the infection to humans. But pediatric infectious disease specialist Stephen Swanson, M.D., a former CDC epidemiologist and lead author of the study, says rodents can also carry the bacteria. "Virtually any non-aquatic animal can carry salmonella in their intestinal tract," Swanson says. "It isn't just reptiles."

Most rodents infected with salmonella will develop diarrhea and become "quiet" and lethargic. Their fur will likely lose its gloss, and they might have discharge from the eyes or nose. However, like reptiles, some rodents can carry the bacteria without showing symptoms. Because salmonella tests are expensive and difficult to perform in rodents, Swanson recommends taking simple precautions rather than testing animals that seem healthy.

"The most important step for parents and for schools to take is a step of prevention," he says.

Swanson's suggestions:

  • Carefully wash your hands with soap and water after handling the animal, or the pet's food and water dishes, cage or toys.

  • Do not allow pets in food-preparation or eating areas.

  • Don't kiss your pet or hold it near your face.

Swanson also says parents should supervise young children when handling or caring for pets, as they might forget those safety precautions, especially that last one. "It's hard not to kiss any cute, furry little animal," he says.

If your pet becomes ill, keep it away from children - especially those under age 5 - and pregnant women, who are most susceptible to infection. Symptoms of salmonella infection in humans include abdominal cramping and pain, diarrhea (possibly with blood) and fever. If you have a pet that is ill and your child develops these symptoms, Swanson recommends letting your pediatrician know about the pet so that your child can be tested for salmonella infection.

For more information on how families and pets can healthily co-exist, visit the CDC's Web site, Healthy Pets, Healthy People.

For advice on choosing the best small pets for your family, go to The Good, the Bad and the Scaly.

Christina Elston is a senior editor and health writer for Dominion Parenting Media.

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