Parents beware: Cute critters can carry ugly sickness

Chicks, ducklings, turtles, hedgehogs can infect loving children with salmonella

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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Learn more about salmonella and how the bacteria is spread by birds, reptiles and mammals at the Washington State Department of Health website.

Chicks and ducklings may be oh-so-cute and soft, but they shouldn't be snuggled or kissed.

The same goes for not-so-cuddly turtles and hedgehogs, public health officials warn.

Those palm-sized birds, reptiles and mammals can carry salmonella bacteria that, while harmless to the animals, can make their human handlers sick.

"I wish these animals were as clean as we are, but they're not," said Dr. Alan Melnick, Clark County health officer.

As Easter approaches, health officials advise against buying chicks or ducklings as gifts for children, and they urge people of all ages to wash their hands thoroughly after handling chicks, ducklings, turtles and hedgehogs. All of the animals can carry salmonella bacteria.

Salmonella is a bacterial infection spread by fecal-oral transmission. People are most often infected by eating or drinking contaminated food or water or through contact with infected people or animals.

Salmonella symptoms can include severe diarrhea, bloody diarrhea, fever, chills, abdominal discomfort and, occasionally, vomiting. The symptoms generally appear one to three days after exposure, and infections can last from several days to months. Most people recover on their own without medication.

Young children, elderly adults and people with weakened immune systems are at higher risk for severe illness.

Animals can carry and transmit the bacteria several different ways.

When people touch the animals or their habitats, they can get the salmonella bacteria on their hands. Without a thorough hand-washing with soap and water, that bacteria can be transferred to food, other surfaces or anything the person touches, including their own mouths. Children who play with the animals may try to cuddle and kiss the small critters, giving the bacteria a direct path to infection, Melnick said.

Chicks and ducklings pick up the bacteria from other birds. They carry the bacteria in their intestines; oftentimes, salmonella is a regular component of the birds' intestinal bacteria, Melnick said.

'Carry it in their bodies'

Hedgehogs can spread the bacteria if their waste gets on their bristly coat or contaminates their toys, bedding or other things in their cages.

With turtles, research has found when the reptiles defecate in the water, the water becomes viscous. It then coats the turtles in a "fecal sheen," Melnick said.

"Then the kids would take those little turtles with fecal sheen and put them in their mouths," he said, referring to research findings.

All of the animals can carry the bacteria and still appear healthy.

"Birds, reptiles, hedgehogs: they're reservoirs for salmonella," Melnick said. "They just carry it in their bodies."

Cleaning dirty terrariums and cages can also expose a person to salmonella bacteria. If the habitats are cleaned in a kitchen, people run the risk of contaminating other surfaces, including those where food is prepared, Melnick said. Instead, health officials suggest cleaning the habitats outdoors.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is currently monitoring several multistate salmonella outbreaks linked to hedgehogs and turtles.

Twenty people in eight states, including Washington, have been infected with salmonella in the past year after coming into contact with pet hedgehogs. Four people have been hospitalized as a result, and one Washington resident died, according to CDC data.

In Washington, seven people, including one Clark County resident, have gotten sick, according to the Washington State Department of Health.

The CDC also reports nearly 350 cases of salmonella infections linked to small turtles. The CDC is investigating eight overlapping, multistate outbreaks of human salmonella infections linked to exposure to turtles or their environments. The outbreaks have spread across 38 states; Washington has not reported any cases, according to CDC data.

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_health; http://facebook.com/reporterharshman; marissa.harshman@columbian.com.