diseases related to bearded dragon reptile

Can my bearded dragon make me sick and Can I Make it Sick?

Can bearded dragons make you sick? Yes, your bearded dragons can make you sick.

Dr Callista Chinenye Emecheta is a Medical Practitioner and a Public Health enthusiast. She is currently enrolled in a postgraduate research study with the University of South Wales, UK.

Some pet owners allow bearded dragon’s close to their face or run around the house. Some bathe them in their kitchen sinks, let their toddlers touch them, or even kiss their pets on the mouth.

Either those pet owners do not realize the consequences, or perhaps don’t expect to be one of those ‘unlucky’ ones who fall sick from diseases contracted from their bearded dragons.

It has been established that you can contract a number of diseases from bearded dragons. You can also contract diseases from reptiles that you haven’t even come in direct contact with, through other reptile handlers.

Bearded dragons have been identified to be carriers of bacteria, viruses, parasites and worms (Health protection surveillance Centre, 2013). It has been advised to treat them as contaminated even when they appear to be healthy.

Can I Kiss my Bearded Dragon?

Never kiss your bearded dragon. Many of the diseases they harbour are transmitted through your mouth when you ingest the microorganisms.

According to a report by the National Health Service, 4 people were rushed to the hospital in Georgia, United States as a result of salmonella infection which was suspected to be from kissing their pets. Pet owners were warned to desist from kissing their bearded dragons (Mills, 2014).

Over 90% of all reptiles including bearded dragons may be carriers of salmonella (Jong et al, 2005). They also carry other bacteria, viruses, parasites, and worms.

A lot of times they don’t show clinical symptoms. They often shed bacteria in their faeces which easily spread over their skin and you can pick them up when you kiss them.

Kissing your bearded dragon is extremely risky and is strongly discouraged. It is also advisable not to let them anywhere near your face for the same reasons.

Are Bearded Dragons Safe for Toddlers or Babies?

No, bearded dragons are generally not safe for toddlers, babies or children under the age of five.

It has been sufficiently demonstrated that bearded dragons just like other reptiles, harbor disease-causing microorganisms like Salmonella spp, Campylobacter spp, Aeromonas spp, etc. Babies and children under five are more susceptible to these diseases because of their still-developing immunity. They can be infected when they drink bottles of formula that are contaminated with bacteria.

It has been shown also that indirect contact with the disease-causing bacteria is enough to cause disease. They are also more likely to put their hands in their mouths after handling your pets as babies are known to do.

CDC recommends that infants and children under five avoid contact with reptiles. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019a)

The National Health Protection Surveillance Centre has warned parents that reptiles are not appropriate pets for infants and children under five. This was after a case of botulism in an infant which was picked up from a pet turtle (Health Protection Surveillance Center, 2011).

are bearded dragons safe for toddlers
Shana Perry’s family and bearded dragon.

Can You Get Sick from a Bearded Dragon Bite?

You can get sick from a bearded dragon bite. It has been established that bearded dragons do produce venom but they are however harmless to humans.

However, as with most animal bites, tetanus is a cause for concern. There is also the possibility of secondary bacterial infection of the wound.

That said, more often than not, a bite from your bearded dragon will not result in sickness.

bitten by bearded dragon
Bearded dragons can bite you! This is the result of a Pogona minor minor, very small bearded dragon. Large bearded dragons cause much deeper and larger wounds.

Is a Bite From a Bearded Dragon Dangerous?

A bite from a bearded dragon could be dangerous if you contracted a zoonotic disease, otherwise, it isn’t. Here is what to do if a bearded dragon bites you.

If a bearded dragon bites you, follow these 5 easy steps:

  1. Gently pry the jaws apart if it bites and holds on. Do not drop him or pull him away forcefully to prevent tearing your skin open.
  2. Wash the wound with soap and hot or warm water.
  3. Disinfect the wound using an antiseptic solution.
  4. Get a tetanus shot at your local health facility if you are not up to date with your tetanus immunization.
  5. See a doctor if you notice any of the following:
    • The bite wound is deep and your skin is torn.
    • The wound becomes infected; becomes more painful than it was before, red, tender to touch, or discharging pus.

Can I Make My Bearded Dragon Sick?

When the illness you have can spread from you to your pet, it is called reverse zoonoses. There are a few documented cases of reverse zoonoses in animals (chimpanzees and pigs). There isn’t much regarding reptiles, in particular, bearded dragons.

However Salmonella spp, Aeromonas spp, and Pseudomonas spp are common bacteria that cause a variety of diseases in humans and lizards (Divers, 2019). Thus the possibility of transmission from humans to lizards is high.

Salmonella is a normal flora of lizards and typically does not cause illness in them. Aeromonas spp and Pseudomonas spp on the other hand have been implicated in some diseases in lizards:

  • Ulcerative dermatitis (Scale rot); This is a bacterial and fungal infection affecting the dermis (deep part of the skin) and forming exudates. Secondary infection with Aeromonas spp and Pseudomonas spp typically worsens the severity of disease.
  • Abscesses; these are bacterial infections which are confined to an area of the body. If your bearded dragon has an open wound, it is important to practice good hygiene in order to limit secondary bacterial infection.
  • Infectious stomatitis; this is a bacterial infection of the oral cavity which can sometimes spread into the jaws.

For these bacterial illnesses, treatment with antibiotics is often required for full recovery.

Can My Bearded Dragon Catch My Cold?

There is not much concern about your bearded dragon catching your cold as most of the viruses responsible for common cold are not known to cause disease in lizards (Marschang, 2011). However, it is still desirable to practice good hygiene around your pet:

  • Do not sneeze on your bearded dragon.
  • Do not wipe your snot on your bearded dragon.
  • Wash your hands before and after contact with your bearded dragon.

Doctor’s Tips on Good Hygiene Practices

Your bearded dragon can make you sick. A lot of times, it arises as a result of improper care and hygiene practices. The simplest of practices can go a long way in protecting you from a totally preventable illness. Here are some tips to help you stay safe and enjoy your bearded dragon.

More of these tips are:

  • Always wash your hands with soap and water before and after coming in contact with your bearded dragon.
  • Don’t eat while handling your pets.
  • Wear gloves when you clean its cage and always wash her your hands afterwards. Use a hand sanitizer if you can’t wash immediately.
  • Don’t ever clean your bearded dragon’s food containers or other accessories in your kitchen sink.
  • Dispose of its droppings down a toilet rather than a sink or a bath.
  • Don’t let your bearded dragon run around the house, especially your kitchen.
  • Don’t keep your bearded dragon’s housing in your kitchen, dining area of bedrooms. For a number of the states in Australian, the location of the reptiles house in your home forms part of the rules of having a licence to keep reptiles.
  • Never kiss your bearded dragon.
  • Keep your baby away from your bearded dragon if you do decide to have them anyway.
  • If your baby has touched your bearded dragon, wash their hands thoroughly with soap and water. I’d recommend a bath even as they like to play and cuddle with pets.
  • Salmonella can also be on your clothes, take precautions before holding an infant.
  • Do not eat, smoke or drink around your bearded dragon or perform any other activity that will involve hand to mouth.

Good Animal Husbandry Practices

  • Don’t feed mice pups.
  • Clean the enclosure, accessories and equipment with appropriate disinfectants. Know what you are targeting with cleaning to be effective. For example, bleach doesn’t kill salmonella. See the post on How to Clean your Bearded Dragons House and Furnishings for cleaning.
  • Provide large enclosures, the smaller the enclosure the higher the concentration of pathogens the animal is constantly exposed to. In addition, research is finding that salmonella infection is less prevalent in reptiles kept in larger more natural environments. (Hydeskov 2013)
  • Keep devoted cleaning buckets, sponges, scrubbing brushes and other equipment for cleaning the enclosure.
  • Always use a tub or other suitable container devoted to bath your reptile in, do not use your bath or sink.

What Diseases Can You Get From a Bearded Dragon?

The zoonotic diseases you can get from your bearded dragon include:

  • Salmonellosis
  • Campylobacteriosis
  • Aeromonas Infection

Most Common Disease Associated With Bearded Dragons

The commonest zoonotic disease associated with bearded dragons is salmonellosis caused by salmonella.

More than 90% of all reptiles may be carriers of salmonella (Jong et al., 2005). A single reptile can carry up to five different serotypes.

“Contact with reptiles can be a source of human Salmonella infections. Reptiles can be carrying Salmonella bacteria but appear healthy and clean and show no signs of illness”

CDC ‘Advice to Pet Reptile Owners’ 2014

Reptiles infected with salmonella shed the bacteria continuously or intermittently in their faeces. A negative test result does not exclude the presence of infection. You are therefore better off treating your Pet as possibly infected.

Salmonellosis is a bacterial disease mostly affecting the intestinal tract. In severe cases however, it may lead to bacteraemia (spread to blood), or meningitis (Inflammation of the brain covering).

Most people who are infected will usually recover within 4-7 days. In some others, the disease might be severe enough to warrant hospitalization.

salmonella disease bearded dragon
Salmonella by WikiImages

According to CDC, salmonella causes about 1.2 million illnesses every year resulting in 23,000 hospitalizations and 450 deaths in the United States (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019b).

The incidence of infection due to Salmonella spp. in Australia is estimated at 185 infections per 100,000 population per year (Ford, Glass, and Hall, 2014).

In 2012, an outbreak of Salmonella Cotham (which is a rare strain of the bacteria) in Wisconsin, US was linked to bearded dragons. By 2014, up to 160 cases of infection with the rare strain and 6 cases of infection with another strain were reported in 36 states. 37% of infected persons required hospitalization, however, no deaths were recorded (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2014).

6 Symptoms of Salmonella

  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Bloody stool

In a few cases, complications may arise such as:

  • Dehydration (commoner in children)
  • Reactive arthritis (a form of arthritis affecting the joints, eyes, urethra and skin)
  • Spread to your organs through the blood (Haematogenous spread)
  • Blood poisoning (Septicaemia)

How Salmonella is Spread?

The major route of transmission of salmonella is fecal-oral. You may get infected if you unknowingly ingest the organism directly through handling of your pet. You may also get infected indirectly by contact with a contaminated object, or contaminated food and water.

Contact with reptiles can be a source of human Salmonella infections. Reptiles can be carrying Salmonella bacteria but appear healthy and clean and show no signs of illness.

Jacobson 2007; CFSPH 2013

Most Commonly Reported Zoonotic Disease In 2017

Campylobacteriosis is a bacterial disease caused by campylobacter spp which causes gastrointestinal disease. It is the leading cause of food poisoning in Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia (Whiley et al., 2013).

It was also the commonest reported zoonotic disease in 2017, representing almost 70% of all cases (European Food Safety Authority, 2017).

Symptoms of Campylobacteriosis

Symptoms of campylobacteriosis include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Diarrhoea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Malaise

It is usually a self-limiting illness which means that it would normally resolve on its own after a few days. However in a few cases (1 in 10), it may require hospitalization. Complications of the disease include:

  • Guillain-Barre syndrome (1 in 1000 cases), a disease of the nervous system causing paralysis.
  • Reactive arthritis which is relatively more common (1 in 100 cases).

How Campylobacteriosis is Spread

It is more commonly known as a food-borne disease. However, emerging evidence suggest the possibility of transmission of the disease through environmental reservoirs like domestic and wild reptiles.

The possible risk of infection from pet lizards through their handling, contamination, or contact with wild lizards has been established by several studies.

  • A study carried out in 2013 established 9 cases of human infection with new subspecies of campylobacter fetus (Patrick, Gilbert, Blaser, Tauxe, Wagenaar, and Fitzgerald, 2013) following contact with reptiles directly or indirectly.
  • A study from Taiwan detected Campylobacter fetus in the fecal samples of tested wild and domestic reptiles (Wang and Shyu, 2013).
  • A more recent study in 2016 detected the presence of Campylobacter jenuni (the specie responsible for about 99% of human campylobacter infection) in the faeces of lizards from central Australia. 33% were positive and out of these, 60% were attributed to captive lizards (Whiley et al, 2016).

These studies all point to the public health significance of campylobacter as a zoonotic disease with regard to reptiles including lizards.

These studies establish a potential for transmission of campylobacter directly from contact with reptiles including lizards. Also a potential for spread to food production farms when established vectors like flies and rodents come in contact with bearded dragons.

Aeromonas Infection

Another zoonotic infection associated with lizards is Aeromonas. It is a bacterial disease typically known to cause infection in both humans and reptiles (Ebbani and Fratini, 2005).

Symptoms of Aeromonas

In humans, it is most commonly known to cause:

  • I. Gastrointestinal disease: Gastrointestinal disease is the human illness most commonly associated with Aeromonas infection. It usually occurs usually following ingestion of contaminated water or food.
    • Symptoms of Aeromonas gastrointestinal disease include:
      • Fever
      • Nausea
      • Vomiting
      • Watery diarrhea
      • Abdominal cramps
      • Bloody diarrhea (in severe cases)
    • In children it causes a more acute and severe form of diarrhoea, while in adults, it causes a more prolonged, chronic diarrhoea.
  • II. Wound infection: This is the second most common type of human infection caused by Aeromonas. It can infect penetrating wounds or abrasions usually following exposure to contaminated water. III.
  • III. Necrotising fasciitis: This is a severe form of Aeromonas infection also known as flesh-eating disease. It is a life-threatening disease of sudden onset which spreads rapidly and requires aggressive antibiotics treatment. The most commonly affected areas are the limbs and perineal region. Symptoms include:
    • Fever
    • Vomiting
    • Red or purple discoloration of affected skin area
    • Severe pain
  • IV. Opportunistic infections in people with reduced immunity such as in diabetes, HIV/AIDS cancer, prolonged steroid use, etc. Opportunistic infections are infections which would rarely occur in a healthy individual, but which take advantage of an individual’s weakened immunity.

Something You Should Know Before You Feed Your Bearded Dragon Mice

Another zoonotic disease which is worthy of mention with bearded dragons is Lymphocytic Choriomeningitis (LCM).

It is a rodent-borne viral disease caused by Lymphocytic Choriomeningitis mammarenavirus (LCMV). It becomes an issue only if you are feeding mice pups to your bearded dragon.

In 2012, there was an outbreak of LCM associated with feeder mice in the United States which spread to 21 states (Edison et al, 2014).

mice pups spread disease in reptiles
Mice pups, pinkies, spread disease and are not required in the diet.

Symptoms of Lymphocytic Choriomeningitis Virus

Most people who are infected would either not show symptoms or only have a mild illness. In some cases, it could result in meningitis (an inflammation of the covering of the brain), or meningoencephalitis (when your brain also gets involved).

A pregnant woman who becomes infected with LCMV can pass the viral infection on to the fetus. If it occurs during the first trimester, it may result in the death of the fetus and termination of pregnancy. If it occurs in the second or third trimesters, birth defects can develop.

The Symptoms of LCM occur in two phases. In the first phase which can last as long as one week:

  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Headache
  • Loss of appetite
  • Rashes

In the second phase which occurs several days after recovery. Symptoms include:

  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Stiff neck
  • Confusion
  • Drowsiness
  • Abnormalities of the nervous system

While death is highly unlikely (<1%), in the case of meningoencephalitis, temporary or permanent neurological damage is possible. In some cases, arthritis and nerve deafness have been reported following the viral infection.

In the United Kingdom and US outbreaks of both Salmonella and Lymphocytic Choriomeningitis Virus have occurred indirectly to reptile owners by feeding mice to their pets.

Lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus

References and further reading

  1. Birgitta, J., Andersson, Y., and Ekdahl, K. (2005). Effect of Regulation and Education on Reptile-associated Salmonellosis. Emerg Infect Dis. 11(3), 398 – 403. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3298264/
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014). Human Salmonella Infections Linked to Pet Bearded Dragons. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/salmonella/cotham-04-14/index.html
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019a). Healthy Pets, Healthy People. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/specific-groups/children.html
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019b). Salmonella. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/salmonella/index.html
  5. Divers, S. J. (2019). Bacterial Diseases of Reptiles. MSD MANUAL Veterinary Manual. https://www.msdvetmanual.com/exotic-and-laboratory-animals/reptiles/bacterial-diseases-of-reptiles
  6. Ebbani, V., and Fratini F. (2005). Bacterial zoonozes among domestic reptiles. Ann Fac Med Vet, 58, 85–91. http://scholar.google.com/scholar_url?url=http://eprints.adm.unipi.it/185/1/84.pdf&hl=en&sa=X&scisig=AAGBfm0yWkAQqKCtG_Qz8j10kRQBF3cbhg&nossl=1&oi=scholarr
  7. Edison, L., Knust, B., Petersen, B., Gabel, J., Manning, C., Drenzek, C., Stroher, U., Rollin, E. P., Thoroughman, D., and Nichol, S. T. (2104). Trace-Forward Investigation of Mice in Response to Lymphocytic Choriomeningitis Virus Outbreak. Emerging Infectious Diseases, 20(2), 291 – 295. doi:10.3201/eid2010.130861.
  8. European Food Safety Authority. (2018). The European Union summary report on trends and sources of zoonoses, zoonotic agents and food‐borne outbreaks in 2017. EFSA Journal, https://doi.org/10.2903/j.efsa.2018.5500
  9. Kirk, M., Ford, L., Glass, K., and Hall, G. (2014). Foodborne illness, Australia, circa 2000 and circa 2010. Emerg. Infect. Dis., 20, 1857–1864. doi: 10.3201/eid2011.131315 Health Protection surveillance Center. (2011). HPSC Warns of the Dangers of Reptiles to Children.
  10. Health Protection surveillance Center. https://www.hpsc.ie/a-z/zoonotic/reptilesandrisksofinfectiousdiseases/pressreleases/title-12387-en.html Health Protection Surveillance Center. (2013). Reptiles and the risk of Infectious Diseases.
  11. Health Protection Surveillance Center. https://www.hpsc.ie/a-z/zoonotic/reptilesandrisksofinfectiousdiseases/
  12. Hydeskov, H. B., Guardabassi, L., Aalbæk, B., Olsen, K. E. P., Nielsen, S. S. and Bertelsen, M. F. (2013), Salmonella Prevalence Among Reptiles in a Zoo Education Setting. Zoonoses and Public Health, 60: 291–295. doi:10.1111/j.1863-2378.2012.01521.x
  13. Marschang, R. E. (2011). Viruses Infecting Reptiles. Viruses, 3,2087 – 2126. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3230843/pdf/viruses-03-02087.pdf
  14. Mills, R. (2014). How not to train your dragon, NHS gives warning to reptile owners kissing their pets. EPRESS. https://www.express.co.uk/scotland/461733/How-not-to-train-your-dragon-NHS-gives-warning-to-reptile-owners-kissing-their-pets/amp
  15. Patrick, M. E., Gilbert, M. .J., Blaser, M. J., Tauxe, R. V., Wagenaar, J. A., and Fitzgerald C. (2013). Human infections with new subspecies of Campylobacter fetus. Emerging Infectious Diseases. 19, 1679 – 1680.
  16. Wang, C., and Shyu, C. (2013). Occurrence and molecular characterization of reptilian Campylobacter fetus strains isolated in Taiwan. Veterinary Microbiology, 164(1–2), 67 – 76. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.vetmic.2013.01.008
  17. Whiley, H., McLean, R., and Ross, K. (2017). Detection of Campylobacter jejuni in Lizard Faeces from Central Australia Using Quantitative PCR. Pathogens, 6(1), 1 – 5. https://doi.org/10.3390/pathogens6010001
  18. Whiley, H., van-den-Akker, B., Giglio, S., and Bentham, R. (2013). The Role of Environmental Reservoirs in Human Campylobacteriosis. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 10(11), 5886 – 5907. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3863877/

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