Colorful frogs, beady-eyed snakes, dragon-like lizards — if you’re looking for a pet, you can find a surprising selection at shelters and pet stores. However, animals, especially amphibians and reptiles, pose a risk to your family of salmonella infection.

Should you be worried?

Deciding to keep or adopt any pet “depends on your risk tolerance,” says Elisabeth Simone-Freilicher, DVM, a veterinarian at the Massachusetts Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA)‘s Angell Animal Medical Center, who specializes in avian medicine.

Salmonella is a bacterium that can cause an infection, leading to diarrhea, fever, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting and headaches within six to 72 hours of contact, and it may last for two to seven days. Most people recover without treatment. But it may be fatal to children under 5, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

How big is the risk?

Of more than a million cases of salmonellosis recorded in the United States every year, only 11 percent (around 127,000) happen because of direct contact with animals, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“Handling raw food around the kitchen is way more risky than owning one of those pets,” says Jennifer Graham, DVM and assistant professor of zoological companion animal medicine at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.

What pets should you avoid?

According to Graham, amphibians and reptiles pose a higher risk of transmitting salmonella to people “because [the bacteria] can be part of their normal indigenous flora.” Graham says small water turtles have the highest risk of transmitting the disease, which is why the FDA banned the sale of small turtles with a shell less than four inches long in 1975. Lizards, especially bearded dragons and iguanas, have the second highest risk. Third place goes to hatchery chicks and ducklings, and water frogs come fourth.

“Any animal can potentially carry it,” says Graham. Salmonella has been found in clinically normal dogs, cats, rabbits, rodents and other mammals, as well as in sugar gliders, hedgehogs, ferrets, pet birds and chickens, she adds. Most animals may carry it in their feces and end up contaminating their enclosures and their bodies if they step on poop or roll in it.

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How do you prevent contamination?

The Humane Society of the United States recommends avoiding amphibians and reptiles as pets altogether. But if you already have a beloved turtle or lizard and are not planning on surrendering it, don’t panic. Keep at-risk family members away from the animal and its enclosure. If you have good personal hygiene, says Graham, “chances are you will never have a salmonella problem.”

Here are some tips:

  • Do not allow reptiles or amphibians to roam freely through your house, especially in food preparation areas. 
  • Do not clean aquariums and other supplies in the kitchen sink. Use a bathroom or laundry room.
  • Use bleach to disinfect a tub or other place where reptile or amphibian habitats are cleaned.
  • If you are using a sink that hasn’t been disinfected, and you drop a prescription pill or a toothbrush in it, let it go. It’s not worth the risk.
  • Always wash hands thoroughly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds after touching any reptile or amphibian, its housing or anything that comes in contact with the animal or its housing. 
  • Change your pet’s tank water and bedding regularly.

Bottom line: “Keep the pets and their enclosures clean and keep excellent hand hygiene,” says Simone-Freilicher. It’s really that simple.”

“Be careful, and encourage good hand washing at home,” says Graham. “And even though we all want to,” she adds, “don’t ever kiss your pet.”

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Daniela Caride is a freelance writer who has four cats and two dogs. She blogs about being a pet parent at Taildom.com and founded a nonprofit called Phinney's Friends.