A bearded dragon in a person's hands

Salmonella risks from exotic pets


Wild animals kept as so-called “exotic pets”, including reptiles and amphibians, are increasingly common in households across Canada. But their presence poses significant health risks, particularly due to the transmission of zoonotic diseases like Salmonella.

There are an estimated 1.4 million wild animals in homes across Canada. While animals like snakes, lizards, turtles and bearded dragons may be sold as pets, it’s important to recognize that due to their complex needs and evolutionary history, it’s nearly impossible to provide them with a fulfilling life in captivity that truly supports all their needs. Beyond the ethics of keeping wild animals as pets, it’s important to know the potential health risks associated with their ownership. 

Zoonotic diseases, diseases transmitted from animals to humans, pose a significant risk to human health and cause millions of deaths every year. Owners of exotic pets are at a heightened risk of exposure to infectious diseases due to their close contact with animals who carry these diseases. This risk is even higher for vulnerable populations, such as children under the age of five, pregnant people, people over the age of 65 and people who are immunocompromised.  

Public health authorities recommend that children under five should not touch or be exposed to certain animal species due to their disease-causing pathogens and advise against the keeping of reptiles and other wild animals. 

Despite this warning, exotic pets are extremely popular, frequently found in family homes in which owners may be unaware of the potential health risks. Pet stores even market these animals towards families and young children by describing them as “easy to keep”, “beginner pets” and “low maintenance”.  

Outbreaks of Salmonella illness linked to exotic pets 

The most common disease carried by reptiles (like iguanas, turtles, snakes) and amphibians (like frogs and toads) is Salmonella, (the bacteria also known for causing food poisoning). While these animals are healthy, they can be carriers of the disease and can shed the bacteria in their feces and onto their skin, contaminating everyone and everything they touch. Poor captive conditions and stress can exacerbate the growth and spread of the bacteria further, increasing the risks of disease exposure.  

Salmonella outbreaks related to reptile keeping occur frequently, including one last year linked to pet snakes. As of April 2023, there have been 45 confirmed cases across eight provinces, nine of which resulted in hospitalization. Sadly, there has even been one fatality due to this outbreak. 

Salmonella is among the most reported bacteria linked to illness in North America.  

History of reported Salmonella outbreaks in North America linked to exotic pets: 

The true number of outbreaks and people infected is likely to be much greater than reported as many people recover without medical care and are never tested for Salmonella.  

Rare Salmonella strain linked to pet bearded dragons 

Recently, a rare strain of Salmonella, Salmonella Vitkin, was found during an outbreak that occurred between 2021 and 2022 and affected several infants in the United States and Canada. This strain has not been reported in Canada for at least the last 14-years. Given the rarity of this event, an investigation was conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) in the United States, which identified a disturbing link to the bearded dragon pet trade. 

Wild animals are not pets 

Owning wild animals like reptiles and amphibians as pets presents substantial challenges. Not only are these animals unable to thrive in domestic settings due to their complex biological and behavioral needs, but they also carry the potential to transmit dangerous diseases to their human caretakers. 

If you are already caring for wild animal, seeking guidance from a qualified veterinarian specializing in exotic species is essential to ensure both the welfare of the animal and the safety of your household from zoonotic infections.  

While we understand the bond between owners and their pets, it's crucial to prioritize the well-being of these animals and refrain from purchasing exotic pets, thereby supporting conservation efforts to keep wild animals where they belong, in the wild. 

Pledge not to buy a wild animal as a pet

Looking to buy a wild animal as a pet? Hopefully we can change your mind.

More about