Health

Are the health risks of keeping exotic pets increasing?

A pet green lizard Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Lizards have now overtaken horses and ponies in popularity as pets, according to estimates

People should avoid keeping exotic animals as pets because of the health risks involved, warns a new information leaflet. So what are the risks?

Exotic pets may be fascinating and even fun, but they bring with them a wide variety of bugs, microbes and parasites.

When these pass from animals to humans they can cause a wide variety of conditions, such as salmonella, ringworm and tuberculosis.

A new leaflet called Exotic Pets, which is a collaboration by the Emergent Disease Foundation, One Health Initiative and Worldwide Veterinary Service, says these zoonotic diseases - infections that can pass between animals and humans - are likely to cause "thousands of cases of human illness annually and occasional deaths".

It goes on to say that children under five, the elderly and those who are already ill are most vulnerable to infection.

Most cases of these conditions are not serious and deaths are very rare, but with the growing number of exotic pets in the UK, some experts are worried that the health risks are also increasing.

According to the RSPCA, a lack of regulation means it is impossible to know exactly how many exotic animals are being kept, but reptiles do appear to be challenging for a place in the nation's affections.

Pet snakes, lizards, turtles and tortoises, for example, have increased from an estimated 400,000 in UK homes in 2008 to more than one million in 2014 - and lizards have now overtaken horses and ponies in popularity.

Much rarer are the primates - monkeys, apes - and unusual mammals, such as bats, foxes and meerkats that are kept in domestic settings.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Don't kiss your pet reptiles however cute they are, says Public Health England

Clifford Warwick, a medical scientist from the Emergent Disease Foundation, a charity focused on animal-to-human infections, says the threat from exotic pets is very real.

"The modern world enables all-too-easy acquisition of exotic animals into the home.

"The pet trade in general, with its high turnover and diversity of species available, offers a speed-dating reservoir for bugs from far corners of the globe."

Most vets are very familiar with the diseases of dogs, cats and rabbits, he explains, but less familiar with the ones that inhabit exotic animals.

Also, GPs are unlikely to ask a sick patient if they have an exotic pet at home, which means that many cases of these diseases go undiagnosed.

"If you get salmonella from a snake, rather than a dog or cat, it would be a more serious form of salmonella and more difficult to treat," Mr Warwick says.

Salmonella commonly causes symptoms of sickness, diarrhoea and fever and can be caught from fish, amphibians, reptiles and birds.

His advice is that avoiding exposure to bugs from exotic pets in the home is difficult and best achieved by not keeping them in the first place.

Public Health England (PHE) doesn't have any statistics on illnesses or deaths caused by pet-to-human transmission because it is very difficult to work out the source of a particular illness.

Image copyright Science Photo Library
Image caption Salmonella bacteria are found in the gut of many animals, including reptiles

The exceptions are when there is a very unusual outbreak or occurrence, such as the transmission of TB from cats to humans earlier this year.

Dr Hilary Kirkbride, consultant epidemiologist at PHE, says we should not get too worried.

"While there are documented examples of infections acquired from exotic pets, the overall burden of infection is low."

However, there is a good reason for the advice not to kiss reptiles.

"Most reptiles carry salmonella in their gut, and all reptiles should be presumed to carry salmonella even if they do not show any visible signs of infection."

A Department of Health and PHE leaflet on the subject warns that salmonella can pass from reptiles to humans when people put anything in their mouth that has come into contact with their reptile - particularly their fingers.

Some reptile foods such as frozen or defrosted mice, rats and chicks can also contain salmonella and can be a potential source of infection, it adds.

The key to getting rid of any germs picked up from pets is to wash hands thoroughly after handling any exotic animals. Using an alcohol-based cleaning agent is also advised.

To minimise the risk of catching infections, keep reptiles and other animals out of rooms in which food is prepared and eaten.

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