The risks of pet-borne disease

Published 4 October 2009

Small mammals, birds, and reptiles may offer companionship to people in situations when dogs, cats, or larger animals are not practical or permitted — but these smaller creatures require particular care to prevent illness; beware especially of salmonella, tularemia, psittacosis, and lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus

Dr. Michael Watts/Vet Care, in Amissville, Virginia, answers questions about the risks of pet-borne disease:

Q: I have heard that exotic pets can cause sickness in people. What do they carry and how can I keep from getting sick?

A: Small mammals, birds, and reptiles may offer companionship to people in situations when dogs, cats, or larger animals are not practical or permitted. As with all pets, the bond between the human and the animal enhances the health and well-being of both parties. However, these smaller creatures require particular care to prevent illness. Risks from exposure to exotic pet species can be reduced or eliminated by regular hand washing, clean animal housing, keeping exotic pets away from their wild cousins, and proper pet selection.

  • Salmonella: The most common human illness linked to exotic animals. Many pet reptiles, especially aquatic turtles, carry this bacteria on their skins. Some birds, especially baby chicks and ducks, are sources of salmonella exposure. Even some dogs and cats shed this bacteria in their feces, especially those that are fed raw meat. In people salmonella causes unpleasant symptoms like abdominal cramps, nausea, watery or bloody diarrhea, vomiting, and fever. The bacteria can be particularly serious in children, seniors, and people with impaired immune systems. Most people are exposed through undercooked meat or eggs. Most animals that carry the bacteria do not show any symptoms.

To prevent salmonella exposure from pets, be sure to wash hands with soap and warm water after handling reptiles, birds, or any pet feces. Keep pet housing clean. Supervise children handling pets and ensure proper hand washing. Young children and immuno-compromised people should avoid direct contact with reptiles and birds.

  • Tularemia: This naturally occurring bacterial disease of rabbits and rodents is considered a potential bioterrorism agent by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People infected with the bacteria may experience skin rashes, sudden fever, chills, nausea, weakness, joint pain, dry cough, diarrhea, headaches, swollen painful lymph nodes, chest pain, and/or pneumonia. Rabbits and rodents are infected through ticks and biting flies. People can be exposed through inhalation or ingestion. People are generally exposed through handling carcasses of rabbits or rodents. The bacteria is not spread from person to person.
  • Psittacosis: Another potential bioterrorism agent, Psittacosis is an important disease for bird owners to know about. Although less than fifty people are infected each year, the illness can be serious. People may experience heart infections, hepatitis, neurologic symptoms, severe pneumonia, or death. Infected birds may show weakness, poor appetite, fluffed up feathers, diarrhea, difficulty breathing, eye swelling and/or eye discharge. The bird’s feces may remain virulent for months. All sick birds should see a veterinarian, especially if the illness includes eye swelling or discharge.
  • Lymphocytic Choriomeningitis Virus: House mice and other rodents are natural carriers of the LCM virus. Pet mice, hamsters, and guinea pigs may become infected by exposure to wild rodents in pet stores or breeding facilities. These pets may not show any symptoms. Some will lose weight, reduce activity, have swollen eyelids, walk in a hunched posture, stumble or fall, develop seizures, or die from the virus. In people, LCM generally leads to flu-like symptoms one to two weeks after exposure. Contact with urine or bedding is the most common route of infection, although bites can also transmit the disease. To reduce risk of exposure, clean cages often in a well ventilated area. Wash hands after handling pet rodents or their bedding. Do not kiss rodents or cuddle them near your face.