The bearded dragons, which are native to central Australia, are popularly kept as pets because they are easier to care for than other types of exotic reptiles. Unfortunately, contact with these animals has been linked with a two-year Salmonella outbreak that infected 132 people.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced on Wednesday, April 23, that the Salmonella Cotham outbreak, which infected 132 individuals from 31 states since February 2012, has been linked to contact with bearded dragons that were bought from different pet stores in different states.
"Epidemiologic, laboratory, and traceback investigations conducted by officials in local, state, and federal public health agencies indicate that contact with pet bearded dragons is the likely source of this outbreak of Salmonella Cotham infections," the CDC said in a statement.
The salmonella Cotham is a rare strain of bacteria that can cause various illnesses to individuals with weak immune systems such as very young children and very old people. The bacteria can cause life threatening diseases such as sepsis and meningitis.
Although the Salmonella Cotham has been linked to contact with pet bearded dragons, Jim Nesci, a reptile expert from Chicago, said that the bacteria is not inherent in the reptiles but actually has something to do with the pet's environment. He said that pet owners should clean the reptile's cage and change the water often to avoid disease.
"The biggest problem is the way people keep stuff. If they keep it filthy and they handle the animal, it's a problem," Nesci said.
While there were no reported deaths, 42 percent of the infected patients who fell ill were hospitalized. Majority of those who fell ill were also children. Fifty-eight percent of those infected were 5 years old and younger.
The CDC advised bearded dragon owners to always observe caution when handling their pets as reptiles may carry Salmonella bacteria even if they look healthy and clean. It particularly advised pet owners to thoroughly wash their hands after contact with the reptiles or their surroundings, to keep the reptiles away from food, drinks and bathroom, and to keep young children and older adults from handling reptiles.
Besides bearded dragons, other animals that carry salmonella bacteria include frogs, snakes, hedgehogs, chicks and turtles.