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June 26, 2024

With a salmonella outbreak linked to bearded dragons, here are tips for pet owners to stay safe

These lizards are not recommended for families with young children and people who are immunocompromised. And as always, washing your hands is important.

Health News Salmonella
bearded dragon salmonella Olena Znak/SOPA Images via Sipa USA

Bearded dragons are linked with a salmonella outbreak that infected 15 people in nine states, the CDC says. Owners of these lizards can take precautions to avoid getting sick, like avoiding kissing and snuggling with their pets.

Pet bearded dragons have been linked to a recent salmonella outbreak, but there are ways that people can protect themselves from infections when hanging out with their scaly friends or when choosing a pet, in general.

There have been 15 reported illnesses and four hospitalizations among nine states in the recent outbreak, according to information posted by the CDC earlier this month. The known illnesses occurred between Jan. 8 and May 16, and 9 of the people who were infected are younger than 5 years old.

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The CDC also reported that more than half of those who became ill said they had contact with a bearded dragon before getting sick. The bacteria tested from those who became sick was closely related genetically, meaning the same type of animal was likely linked to the illnesses. The salmonella strain also was genetically close to a strain that caused an outbreak associated with bearded dragons in 2012-2014, the CDC said.

Reptiles being the source of salmonella outbreaks is not a new phenomenon, said Dr. Henry Fraimow, an infectious diseases specialist at Cooper University Health Care.

"This goes back probably 50 years in the U.S." Fraimow said. "And the reason this happens is that reptile species, most of them to varying degrees, can carry salmonella in their digestive tract without being sick from it."

The animals can shed the bacteria, which is when it gets transmitted to humans via contact, he said. The CDC said most of the people ill from this outbreak said they have pet bearded dragons at home. 

No reported infections have occurred in Pennsylvania or New Jersey — New York and Ohio are the closest states where they have happened. Though, it is likely the number of people sick is "much higher"  and the outbreak is more widespread, the CDC said.

There is no statistic for the exact number of pet bearded dragons in the United States. One pet owner survey from 2020 estimated 5.7 million households owned at least one reptile. And another analysis in 2021 of Google search data found that bearded dragons were the most frequently searched reptile among people who kept reptiles as pets.

By comparison, 62 million households owned at least one dog and 37 million owned at least one cat in 2022, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Still, that's a lot of pet lizards out there. Here's what you should know about salmonella infections linked to bearded dragons:

What is salmonella and how is it linked to pets?

A Salmonella infection is a common bacterial disease affecting the intestinal tract. The bacteria lives in animal and human intestines and is shed through feces. Bearded dragons can carry salmonella germs in their droppings, and these germs can be easily spread to their bodies and the areas where they live, the CDC says.

If a bearded dragon is carrying salmonella, there likely won't be any outward symptoms, similar to how other animals — and even people — have many different bacterial species harmlessly living in our gastrointestinal tracts, said Dr. David Pegues, a professor of infectious diseases at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

Potential problems arise when the bacteria exits the intestinal tract.

"It's the (human) contact with fecal material, whether it's on the animal, in the animal cage, in the bedding, or in the water ... that when you don't clean your hands appropriately, and then you touch food, or you put fingers in your mouth, like little kids will want to do," Peques said. "That's how you transmit the salmonella from the exotic pet to the preschooler."

Some people with salmonella infections have no symptoms, but most develop diarrhea, fever and stomach cramps. Symptoms can emerge from six hours to six days after being exposed, the CDC says. Most people recover without treatment after four to seven days. But, children younger than 5, adults who are 65 years and older, and people with weakened immune systems may get more severely sick and require medical treatment or hospitalization.

As for how the cases are popping up in multiple states across the country, the CDC investigation has not revealed the source of the salmonella that the bearded dragons are carrying, or how exactly it spread from lizard to lizard. But, the answer could be in where the reptiles come from or what they are eating. 

Bearded dragons — known for their spiny reptilian scales that make a "beard" of spikes under their chins — are popular pet reptiles due to their gentle, inquisitive and active personalities. In the wild, bearded dragons can be found across most of Australia. In the 1960s, Australia banned the export of wild bearded dragons, but they've been bred in the United States for decades for the pet trade.

People in the latest outbreak reported purchasing bearded dragons at multiple retail locations, the CDC said. But, there's a possibility that some of them could have come from the same or similar sources.

"It's not that all the animals have salmonella in their GI tract, but they're often kept together in sort of communal cages and things like that, and that will facilitate transmission of salmonella from one bearded dragon to another bearded dragon," Pegues said. "Then they go off to the retail shops, or they're bought online or something."

There's also the chance that the infected bearded dragons could have been eating food that came from the same source, or that they acquired salmonella from other reptile species they were housed with in pet stores or distributors.

How pet owners can avoid salmonella infections

Bearded dragons, or "beardies" as they're lovingly referred to by some, are not the best choice of pet for everyone.

"Maybe if you have someone under 5, that's not the kind of pet that you want to bring into the household," said Dr. Martin Topiel, chief of infectious diseases at Virtua Health in New Jersey. "Or, if you have an older person with a weak immune system, (that is not) the kind of pet you want to bring into the household."

These lizard owners should always thoroughly wash their hands after touching their pets and should never kiss them, snuggle them or eat or drink around them. Bearded dragons should have dedicated enclosures where they live that is kept clean.

"They shouldn't be roaming all over the place in the house, and certainly not in a space where there's a baby or a young child that might be playing or crawling around, as well," Topiel said.

The CDC has published a guide to staying healthy around pets.

While outbreaks connected to pet bearded dragons have become increasingly common in recent years, they are not the only animals to handle with caution.

There are at least 2,600 distinct types of salmonella, many of which colonize in the guts of birds, mammals, fish, reptiles and amphibians, Pegues said. Particularly risky when not handled properly are snakes, iguanas, frogs, toads, chickens and ducks. Last year, a salmonella outbreak was linked to tiny pet turtles, the sale of which is banned in the U.S. due to the illness risk but continues illegally. 

For those with pet bearded dragons, another way to limit potential infections is making sure the reptile is cared for properly.

"We know that animals in the wild, even though they have salmonella in their intestinal tract, tend to shed it less than those in captivity," Fraimow said. "And those that are probably under stressed conditions — that they aren't being well taken care of, don't have enough room or are overcrowded — they are more likely to shed salmonella. So making sure that you are also making sure that your reptile is well cared for is going to be very important."

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