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Think twice about getting an exotic pet
by William Stratbucker, MD on 04/28/2011 at 3:21 PM

Guest blogger Karen Dahl, MD, is a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Helen DeVos Children's Hospital.

Boy with pet kitten

Pet ownership can be a wonderful experience for families. I have enjoyed having dogs, cats and rabbits as pets myself.

However, I am not an advocate of families owning exotic pets, such as certain rodents, reptiles and monkeys because they put children and families at serious risk-not only can exposure to these animals cause injury and infection, they can carry serious exotic diseases that your physician may not be familiar with and therefore are difficult to diagnose and treat.

Children under the age of five are at an even greater risk than other age groups because they still have immature immune systems and are more likely to put their hands in their mouth, increasing the risk of acquiring an infection. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that infants and children under five years old avoid contact with the following animals:

  • Reptiles (lizards, snakes and turtles)
  • Amphibians (frogs, toads, newts and salamanders)
  • Baby chicks
  • Ducklings

Additionally, children under five should be extra cautious when visiting farms and having direct contact with farm animals, including animals at petting zoos and fairs.

Here are just some examples of diseases you or your child can contract that are transmitted by exotic pets:

  • Salmonella: Reptiles turtles and chicks carry high rates of salmonella. In children and adults, the bacteria can cause severe cases of diarrhea, fever, vomiting, abdominal cramps and even death. A child can pick up the bacteria from a person who handles the pet, but also from household surfaces the animal may have touched.
  • Bubonic Plague: The plague is carried by wild rodents such as prairie dogs, which have been sold as pets in recent years.
  • Herpes B: Carried by macaque monkeys, and also known as monkey B virus or B virus. In humans, the virus leads to an illness that can cause death. Monkey bites are the primary way humans get herpes B virus. Human herpes B virus infection carries a case fatality rate of approximately 70 percent.
  • Rabies: Carried by wolf-dog hybrids. No USDA-licensed rabies vaccine is approved for wolf-dog hybrids-that is because there is no proof that the canine vaccine is effective in a wolf-dog hybrid. Raccoons and foxes also are reservoirs for rabies and should never be kept as pets.
  • Rat Bite Fever: Transmitted by a bite, kiss or lick from a pet rat. This is a serious illness, often resulting in hospitalization and untreated, can be fatal. (Several years ago, I treated a young girl for rat bite fever. She was hospitalized with fever, joint swelling and pain, and a rash, just after Christmas. Her parents had bought her a blue rat as a Christmas present, but were unaware of the risks associated with this type of pet.)
  • Influenza: Can be transmitted between humans and ferrets.

Exotic pet ownership is on the rise in the U.S., increasing by 75 percent since 1992. There are many Web sites that offer not only North American-based exotic pets, but for a price, buyers can purchase animals worldwide, such as reindeer, llamas, camels, kangaroos, iguanas, parrots, pythons, marsupials or other creatures that are in demand. What this means is, even if you don't have an exotic pet yourself, chances are one of your child's friends may have an exotic pet or buy one at some time.

To help keep your child safe, I recommend you follow safety and preventive measures offered by the American Academy of Pediatrics:

  • Match the size and temperament of your pet to the age and behavior of your infant or child, and provide close supervision to reduce the possibility of injury.
  • Wash hands immediately after contact with animals, animal products, or their environment.
  • Supervise hand-washing for children younger than 5 years old.
  • Do not allow nontraditional pets to roam or fly freely in the house.
  • Do not allow animals in areas where food or drink are prepared or consumed.
  • Keep animals free of parasites, ticks, and fleas. Maintain current vaccines like rabies.

If you are still thinking about having an exotic pet, talk to your pediatrician first so you understand the particular concerns related to the animal you are considering. Pediatricians at Helen DeVos Children's Hospital can offer advice on proper pet selection and provide information about safe pet ownership and responsibility to minimize risks to you and your children. Your veterinarian is another source of information on what diseases can be transmitted by animals. If your child ever becomes ill, it is important to inform your health care provider of the types of animals your child has been exposed to so unusual diseases and infections can be considered.

- Dr. Dahl

Add Comment
Comment posted by Anonymous on 01/29/2012 at 8:35 AM
Thank God! Someone with brains saepks!
Comment posted by Anonymous on 10/13/2011 at 3:37 PM
Alright alirhgt alright that's exactly what I needed!
Comment posted by Dr. Dahl on 05/25/2011 at 8:03 AM
The infectious disease risk from one or two birds in the home is small for healthy people. So for most people, I think this is a fine choice. However, people with some medical conditions would be at increased risk of several types of infection or breathing trouble. So, for those with chronic medical conditions, consult your doctor before taking a bird into the home.
Comment posted by A Faber on 05/17/2011 at 1:57 PM
What is your opinion of owning birds?
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