Exotic pets from the amphibian and reptilian worlds are becoming increasingly popular, with more and more owners ditching the idea of a puppy and instead opting for a bearded dragon. After all, there is just a certain appeal to owning a literal dragon! However, even the strongest and most intimidating of dragons may face the challenges of disease; some of which you should be aware of as an owner (or dragon tamer, if you prefer).
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Is it possible to catch diseases from my pet?
Yes, it is possible to catch zoonotic diseases from your pet. Zoonotic diseases are defined as an infectious disease which can be passed from non-human animals to humans. The disease may be caused by bacteria, fungi, or viruses, and can be transmitted from us touching or interacting with the animal. All companion animals will have the potential to become infected with and pass on a zoonotic disease; for example, cats may cause toxoplasmosis, while dogs may transmit ringworm. Exotic species of reptiles and amphibians are no exception for transmitting zoonotic diseases. Although they will have different types of infectious diseases which owners should be aware of.
The most common disease
The most common and prevalent infectious disease amongst reptiles is Salmonella. The bacteria are carried naturally in their gut and excreted through faeces, which will quickly spread to contaminate the animal’s skin and environment. Any person who handles the reptile or is in contact with their living environment will become contaminated. And may become infected if the contaminated part of the body (most commonly the hand) enters the mouth. Unfortunately, it is difficult to keep a lizard or their environment entirely free of Salmonella, as even the most diligent cleaning will only work to minimise the number of bacteria.
Although Salmonella infections aren’t usually life threatening, it will cause a host of symptoms ranging from diarrhoea to fever to abdominal pain. Certainly not a pleasant experience to have! Children under the age of five, in particular, are prone to becoming infected and developing more serious symptoms; possibly due to their underdeveloped immune system, or lower hygiene standards. (If you’ve ever had to try and stop a child licking their fingers at inappropriate times, you’ll know what we mean…).
Others to be aware of
There are several other diseases you might read up on when researching diseases that lizards can transmit, a lot of which might sound quite dramatic or scary! For example, you might come across the term botulism, a life-threatening condition caused by toxins released by one of the Clostridia (a family of bacteria); although the bacteria will be more commonly seen in aquatic reptiles such as turtles, than in lizards. Other bacterial infections which reptiles might transmit are Campylobacter, which will cause diarrhoea, abdominal pain and fever (similar to Salmonella), or rarer bacteria (e.g. Leptospirosis) and protozoa (Leishmania and Cryptosporidium have been reported, as well as Giardia). Thankfully, these diseases are usually quite rare. And are unlikely to become an issue if you are maintaining hygiene and getting your pet from a reputable source.
The key to reducing the risk of developing an infection is maintaining hygiene. Reptile owners should always wash their hands thoroughly with soap and water, immediately after handling their pet or their environment (this includes handling the cage, feed or bedding). Be careful not to touch your face or mouth while interacting with your lizard, to avoid ingesting any contaminant. Despite being a popular thing for owners to do, giving your lizard ‘kisses’ is in fact not recommended, as this is a sure way for you to give yourself a dose of whatever bacteria is on their skin!
Another important thing is to prevent your reptile from contaminating your meal preparation or eating areas. If you choose to let your lizard roam outside of their cage, make sure that this is in a contained area; and that they will not come near your kitchen or eating areas. Choose somewhere that isn’t the kitchen to clean their habitat and equipment (such as the bathroom); making sure to thoroughly clean and disinfect that area afterwards.
By following these general rules, your chances of catching an infectious disease from your lizard should be minimal. If you do happen to show any of the symptoms mentioned above (diarrhoea, fever etc.), seek medical attention immediately. And make sure to let them know that you have a pet lizard.
And if your lizard is ill get an appointment with a vet who has experience in these ancient and fascinating beasts!