Pet Rodents May Spread Bacteria and Tips to Keep Away

Pet Rodents May Spread Bacteria and Tips to Keep Away

Contaminated food or water caused many epidemics in earlier times. Even today some foods frequently contain bacteria that cause diarrhea. (For example, over 50% of raw turkey or chicken contains Campylobacter or Salmonella bacteria. By contrast, only 1% of raw eggs are contaminated with Salmonella.) Ground beef may be contaminated with E. coli bacteria.


Like people, all animals carry germs. Some illnesses that are common among house pets - such as distemper, canine parvovirus, and heartworms - can't be transmitted to humans. But pets also carry certain bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi that can cause illness if they are transmitted to humans. Humans get these animal-borne diseases when they are bitten or scratched or have contact with an animal's waste, saliva, or dander.

These diseases can affect humans in a wide variety of ways. They are of greatest concern to young children, infants, and pregnant women who have immune systems that have been compromised by illness or disease. Immune systems of younger kids aren't as strong as those of older kids. So some infections that might make an adult just mildly sick can be more serious for kids.However, many of these patients decide to keep their pet. In this case, the patient and the families must stay aware of the potential risk for diseases that can be passed from animals to humans.

Salmonella enterica serotype Enteritidis (S. Enteritidis) is the most common serotype associated with foodborne Salmonella infection worldwide. Eleven years ago, an international increase in the incidence of S. Enteritidis was described as a pandemic.E. coli is a bacterium present in certain foods — such as undercooked hamburger or unwashed fruits or vegetables. When you eat foods contaminated with E. coli, chances are you'll experience an illness — also commonly referred to as food poisoning.Ehrlichiosis is a bacterial infection that infects animals, such as dogs, deer, coyotes, and mice. Sometimes the disease spreads to humans.

Reptiles, such as lizards, snakes, and turtles, shed Salmonella in their feces. Touching the reptile's skin, cage, and other contaminated surfaces can lead to infection in people. Salmonellosis causes symptoms such as abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting, and fever. Young children are at risk for more serious illness, including dehydration, meningitis, and sepsis.

Immunocompromised people are often advised to give up their pets to avoid getting various diseases from the pets. This includes people with HIV, kidney failure, alcoholism, cirrhosis, diabetes, cancer, or leukemia. It also includes people who have had a transplant or splenectomy, or who are undergoing chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or high doses of steroids.

Campylobacteriosis is a zoonosis (passed to humans via animals or animal products).It is is an infection of the gastrointestinal tract The cause is a bacterium, usually Campylobacter jejuni or C. coli. The bacteria are widely distributed and found in most warm-blooded domestic and wild animals. They are common in food animals such as poultry, cattle, pigs, sheep, ostriches, and shellfish and in pets including cats and dogs. The animals may not have symptoms. People are exposed to the bacteria after consuming contaminated food such as undercooked meats, contaminated water, or raw milk

Campylobacter jejuni is a frequent cause of diarrhoea/ dysentery in children in our set up. In children it is often related to pets keeping and chicken meat consumption. In the remaining, untreated drinking water may be the source. Campylobacter jejuni frequently presents with blood and mucous in stools with sporadic cases presenting with watery diarrhoea.

Beware the cute pet hamster.

It could be harboring salmonella, and it could pass the dangerous bacteria on to you, health experts are warning.

"Pet rodents can spread bacteria. They should be considered cute but contaminated," said Dr. Stephen Swanson, lead author of an article published in the Jan. 4 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. "They are in schools and kindergartens and day care centers around the country, which is not to say they can't be, but if young children are going to handle them, parents and teachers need to be cognizant that these animals can shed these bacteria."

Most of the 1.4 million salmonella infections which occur annually in the United States come from food, but some come from contact with animals. Animal-related cases have also been documented from reptiles and amphibians, chicks, ducklings, kittens and hedgehogs.

But there had been no real connection between "pocket pets" such as hamsters and human cases of salmonella until an outbreak in August 2004.

"This is the first multistage outbreak of salmonella ever described from pet rodents," Swanson said. While working as an epidemic intelligence service officer for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, stationed at the Minnesota Department of Health, Swanson was the original lead author of a 2005 report which first connected rodents with human cases of salmonella. He is currently a pediatric infectious disease physician with the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis.

The trail started on Aug. 30, 2004, when a veterinarian for a Minnesota pet distributor notified the Minnesota Department of Health that two hamsters from a shipment of 780 had tested positive for salmonella and that the animals were dying in large numbers. Unbeknownst to her, the pet distributor had already shipped 243 of the original 780 animals to 15 retail pet stores in four states.

The strain of salmonella involved was a rare one, and investigators were ultimately able to identify 28 matching isolates in humans. Of 22 patients (or their parents) who could be interviewed, 13 (59 percent) had had contact with rodents purchased from retail pet stores. Two individuals (9 percent) had become infected through contact with a primary patient. Seven patients (32 percent) did not appear to have had any exposure to rodents.

One four-year-old boy in South Carolina had been hospitalized for five days in June 2004. Nine days before he fell ill, his family had purchased a hamster from a pet store. The hamster died two days later.

In August 2004, a five-year-old boy in Minnesota also fell ill four days after his family purchased a mouse. The mouse died one week after it was purchased.

A 23-year-old pregnant woman in Missouri fell ill after she purchased live rats and mice to feed her pet python. No salmonella was isolated from the culture of the snake feces, and the rodents and their cages weren't available for testing. The woman's baby, born prematurely after the mother fell ill, also had salmonella and was in intensive care for 56 days before going home.

Not only was this the first outbreak documented, the strain involved was resistant to several drugs.

"There was widespread abuse of antimicrobials within the [pet] industry," Swanson said. "Antimicrobial use in the industry is potentially contributing to the dissemination of multi-drug resistant types of salmonella."

The bottom line: People can and should keep their pets as long as they look healthy. But, experts say, a few simple tips can safeguard health:

Wash your hands frequently -- not just after handling the pet but also after touching cages and bedding.

Being bitten or scratched by an infected animal can make you sick and, in extreme circumstances, could even cause death. Handling animal waste can be hazardous, too. You can become infected by scooping your cat's litter box or by cleaning bat or mouse droppings in your house or garage.

If you come by and touch the countertop and then touch your mouth or rub your eyes, you could get the infection. Infected fluids from the eyes, nose, and mouth that end up on people's hands are the most common way infections are spread. Hands or other objects contaminated by bowel movements are the reason for the spread of most diarrhea, as well as infectious hepatitis.

Finally, certain individuals, such as people with compromised immune systems or pregnant women, may want to avoid direct contact with animals as they are a particularly vulnerable population.

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