An outbreak of a rare strain of salmonella linked to pet hedgehogs has killed one person and sickened at least 20 people in eight states – including Minnesota.
All of the ill people were infected with a strain of bacteria called Salmonella typhimurium, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Fourteen of the patients reported direct contact with pet hedgehogs.
The outbreak began in December 2011, and has continued into 2013. Washington, with seven infections, has reported the most cases, followed by Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio, which each have had three reported cases. Other states that have reported infections are Alabama, Illinois, Indiana and Oregon. Four people have been hospitalized, and one in Washington has died. About 45 percent of the cases were in kids 10 or younger.
Although most salmonella infections are a result of food poisoning, animals can spread the disease just as easily. A number of pets, including frogs, toads, guinea pigs, hamsters, lizards, snakes, chickens and ducks, can pass salmonella bacteria to people. Farm animals like horses, cows, goats and sheep can pass the bacteria on to people as well. Dogs and cats also can spread salmonella, but there have been no big outbreaks linked to them. One major source of animal-related salmonella is through pet turtles, with the CDC having reported a total of 347 turtle-related illnesses in 37 states and the District of Columbia.
Dry pet food that is not made to be sterile can be another source of infection. In July, the CDC reported 49 salmonella cases linked to dry dog food.
Be aware that animals can carry Salmonella germs and still look perfectly clean and healthy. It can live in animals' intestinal tracts and be passed through feces, after which the microscopic bacteria can contaminate fur, feathers, scales and the spiny quills of a hedgehog.
In people, the bacteria can cause salmonellosis, an infection that can lead to abdominal pain, diarrhea and fever. Although most people recover without treatment, severe infections can lead to death. Infants, children, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems are most vulnerable to becoming severely ill.
Hedgehogs are good pets but people should take precautions with them, as well as with other animals. Some of the CDC's tips for avoiding salmonella infections:
- Wash hands with running water and soap after contact with animals, their food or their environment.
- Keep animals out of areas where food and beverages are prepared.
- Clean pet habitats, food and water bowls often.
- Wear gloves when cleaning cages.
- Refrain from kissing animals or allowing them to lick faces.
- Supervise children when they play with their pets and have them wash their hands immediately afterwards.
- Avoid buying bagged or canned pet food with damaged packaging.
There were 66.5 million pet-owning households in the United States, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association's 2012 U.S. Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook. About 12.6 million households owned exotic or specialty pets, such as hedgehogs, guinea pigs, lizards and turtles.
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