Reptiles not suitable as pets for under fives


PARENTS HAVE been warned that reptiles are not appropriate pets for children under the age of five after an infant picked up a potentially life-threatening infection from a pet turtle.

The baby who was recently diagnosed with a botulism infection is now recovering but the national Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) warned the situation could have been more grim as recovery from such a serious infection is by no means assured.

There are a number of different types of botulism toxin but the type which the baby picked up – type E – is so rare it was only the seventh case ever reported in an infant worldwide, the centre said.

The baby is believed to have picked up the toxin following exposure to a turtle or turtle feed.

The HPSC said a significant proportion of cases of salmonella are also associated with contact with reptiles. Dr Paul McKeown, a specialist in public health medicine at the centre, said there were 449 cases of salmonellosis reported in 2008 and 15 of these had recent contact with reptiles.

“Very worryingly, nine of these 15 cases were in children under one year of age. This tells us that these diseases are appearing too commonly in households that have pet reptiles and too commonly in infants and babies,” he said.

Reptiles such as snakes, lizards, tortoises, turtles and terrapins have become extremely popular as pets, he said, but they require careful handling as they carry a range of germs that can lead to illness. Washing hands after touching them is very important.

“Given the risks, reptiles should not be kept as pets in a house where there are children under the age of five,” he added.

Furthermore, he said, small children whose immune systems are not fully developed are not the only group at increased risk of illness from reptiles. Pregnant women, elderly or frail adults or immunosuppressed people such as those with cancer should also avoid all contact with reptiles.

Dr McKeown said if a child acquired botulism from a turtle it would almost certainly come from the water in which the reptile was in being splashed on to the infant. There was also a risk of infection if other family members picked up a reptile and then picked up a child without washing their hands.

“Pets are great company but the risk here is such that for most parents it’s probably too big a risk to take with their children . . . it’s quite terrifying to see infant botulism, it’s desperately worrying for a parent,” he said.

For other groups, keeping reptiles does not pose a significant risk as long as proper hygiene steps are taken. “These include proper handling of reptiles and disposal of waste and water, frequent handwashing following contact with reptiles and keeping your reptiles in their tank,” he said.