Report Finds Pet Rodents Pose Disease Risk
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Cute but contaminated. Health experts say pet hamsters, mice and gerbils can expose their owners to a form of the bacteria salmonella that is resistant to most antibiotics. NPR's Patricia Neighmond reports on a study from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
PATRICIA NEIGHMOND reporting:
Salmonella is a bacteria that causes food poisoning--vomiting, diarrhea, fever. In severe cases, patients can be hospitalized. Health officials knew that snakes and turtles could pass salmonella on to people, but nobody thought much about other small pets until last year when a health official in Minnesota noticed a shipment of hundreds of very sick hamsters. Dr. Stephen Swanson.
Dr. STEPHEN SWANSON (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention): They were lethargic, they had diarrhea, they were ill-appearing, and this veterinarian was concerned about the appearance of this large shipment of hamsters because they were scheduled to be shipped to pet stores around the upper Midwest for sale to the public.
NEIGHMOND: Swanson investigates disease outbreaks for the CDC. He found they were infected with an unusual strain of salmonella that's resistant to treatment with antibiotics. Cases of people infected with this type of salmonella had been reported in a number of states, but nobody knew how they got infected. Now CDC officials had a clue. CDC epidemiologist Patricia Griffin says they turned to a new high-tech tracking system.
Dr. PATRICIA GRIFFIN (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention): It's a way of fingerprinting different bacteria so that we can say which bacteria strains match each other, and when we find matches in people who live in different places, we say, `Gee, there's a match,' and that probably suggests that they got their illness from the same source, and that's exactly what happened in this situation. We found matching strains in people from 19 different states.
NEIGHMOND: And it turned out over two-thirds of the victims had been exposed to pet rodents. Many were children. Some got so sick they had to be hospitalized. Health officials say gerbils, guinea pigs, ferrets and rabbits could also carry the bacteria, and Stephen Swanson says they could appear completely healthy.
Dr. SWANSON: It's probably not a good idea to be kissing these animals. It is certainly not a good idea to have a young child who is not able to wash their hands independently be handling these animals and cleaning the cages unless an adult is there to help them wash their hands afterwards.
NEIGHMOND: Salmonella is transmitted in feces, typically to the mouth. With many of these animals their fur and body is covered with microscopic amounts of feces. When you pet or kiss them, you're exposed to the bacteria. And rodents can spread salmonella to each other when they're shipped.
Dr. SWANSON: Distributors and pet stores often will reuse and share cages and transport containers, and we suspect that these transport cages and containers are not routinely cleaned between animals that are using it.
NEIGHMOND: And Swanson says if your pet dies soon after you buy it, it could be infected with salmonella. Tell the pet store, he says, and don't use the cage again until it's been thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. Patricia Neighmond, NPR News.
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