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For Some Animals, There's No Place at Home

Exotic pets like rodents, reptiles and monkeys can carry disease, report warns

MONDAY, Oct. 6, 2008 (HealthDay News) -- Exposing your children to the joys of pet ownership may, in some cases, also mean exposing them to infections and injuries.

Parents need to be aware of the dangers -- including salmonella infection and even monkey pox -- of owning such nontraditional pets as rodents, reptiles, monkeys and more, says a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) published in the October issue of Pediatrics.

The report is the first comprehensive statement on the topic, said study co-author Dr. Robert Frenck, a pediatrics professor at Cincinnati Children's Hospital and a member of the AAP committee on infectious diseases.

"Nontraditional pets are becoming more traditional, and nontraditional pets can expose kids to disease they otherwise might not be exposed to," Frenck said. "If parents are thinking about having these nontraditional pets, they may want to talk to a veterinarian and/or pediatrician first to see if there is any real concern."

Dr. Charles Mitchell, a professor of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, added, "From the standpoint of public education and from the standpoint of not only pediatricians but also family practitioners, this is important."

The number of exotic animals in the United States has almost doubled since 2002. For instance, 40,000 households now harbor hedgehogs, while 4.4 million homes are home to reptiles, according to the report.

The risks are real. In 2003, a human monkey pox outbreak was traced back to imported African Gambian rats that had infected prairie dogs sold as pets. Small pet turtles were responsible for 103 cases of salmonella infection in the second half of last year, mostly in young children, the report found.

And just last week, an Iraqi dog recently shipped to the United States as part of an international animal rescue effort was found to have rabies. Twenty-four other animals in the shipment, already distributed to 16 states, were potentially exposed, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Oct. 3 issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

The new AAP review details a number of diseases potentially transmitted by these more unusual pets: Reptiles have a high rate of carrying different strains of salmonella, as do turtles, baby poultry -- including chicks -- and hamsters.

Plague is carried by wild rodents and transmitted to humans handling infected animals -- including domestic cats -- that have been bitten by fleas. And macaque monkeys carry the herpes B virus.

And animals don't have to be in the home to pose a risk. More than 55 outbreaks of disease in humans, including infection with E. coli bacteria, involved animals in public settings from 1991 to 2005.

The report recommends frequent hand washing to help minimize these risks.

Children under 5 years old are at particular risk, partly because their immune systems are still developing. Adults with weakened immune systems, the elderly and pregnant women are also at greater risk.

Typically, allergies are associated more with cats and dogs than with nontraditional pets, said Dr. Jonathan Field, emeritus director of the pediatric allergy and asthma clinic at New York University/Bellevue Medical Center in New York City. The real problem comes with people who have weakened immune systems and are exposed to a bacteria or virus from one of these pets.

More information

To learn more, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Healthy Pets Healthy People.

SOURCES: Robert Frenck, M.D., professor, pediatrics, Cincinnati Children's Hospital, and member, American Academy of Pediatrics committee on infectious diseases; Charles Mitchell, M.D., professor, division of infectious disease, department of pediatrics, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine; Jonathan Field, emeritus director, pediatric allergy and asthma clinic, New York University/Bellevue Medical Center, New York City; Oct. 3, 2008, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report; October 2008 Pediatrics
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