A recent case report in the Journal of Clinical Microbiology (Cooke et al. 2009) described isolation of Salmonella Apapa from the feces of a 67-year-old woman with abdominal pain. The patient had a history of various medical disorders but no clear evidence of a compromised immune system. She was hospitalized, and Salmonella Apapa was identified from a stool sample collected the day after admission. Fortunately, her abdominal disease resolved (whether it was caused by Salmonella or whether Salmonella was an incidental finding can’t be stated definitively), and she was ultimately discharged from the hospital.
Salmonella diagnoses usually lead quickly to questions about food and reptiles. In this case, the woman’s son had recently moved in with her, along with his two bearded dragons. The lizards were kept in a tank, and the woman reported having no direct contact with them. Samples from the lizards’ feces and the tank environment were collected, and the same Salmonella strain was isolated. While getting Salmonella from a reptile is certainly nothing new, this case report highlights some important points.
The person that was infected did not report any contact with the reptiles or their tank. Therefore, some type of indirect exposure must have occurred. This is why reptiles should not be kept in high-risk households even if the high-risk people don’t have direct contact with them. High-risk households include households with young children (less than 5 years of age), elderly individuals, pregnant women and immunocompromised individuals.
It’s not just high-risk people that get sick. This person was perhaps on the crux of being considered high-risk based on her age and previous medical problems, but she was certainly not a clear example of the people we assume are at higher risk. A huge number of reptile-asociated cases of salmonellosis are reported every year. While high-risk people are more likely to get sick (and more likely to develop severe illness), healthy individuals can be infected as well.
Reptiles can make good pets. I used to have a pair of Red-Footed tortoises, so I’m certainly not anti-reptile (despite what the emails I typically get after posts like this say). People who have or who are comtemplating getting a reptile for a pet need to be aware of the associated risks, as they are certainly real and should be taken seriously.