In a nutshell, yes bearded dragon have the potential to make their owners sick. The most notable zoonotic disease associated with bearded dragons is salmonella. There are also indirect zoonotic diseases, such as Lymphocytic Choriomeningitis Virus which only becomes a concern if mice pups are being fed.
Between 2012 and 2014 numerous people became sick with salmonella in the US which was related to bearded dragons and was in CDCs focus (CDCs final update on infections caused by contact with pet bearded dragons). No one died but 37% of those who became ill were hospitalised. A study by Cartwright (2016) was able to pinpoint that 11% of the salmonella infections between 2008 and 2010 in the United States were due to animal exposure (significantly associated with reptiles and frozen feeder rodents) whether through direct contact or from cleaning cages, handling contaminated pet food or bowls and touching anything that the animal contacts. 1
Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada have similarly reported salmonella outbreaks on various occassions.
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.
Who is the most vulnerable to getting sick?
There are those that are more susceptible than others to becoming ill, specifically children under 5 and those with a weak immune system.
Symptoms of Lymphocytic Choriomeningitis Virus
LCV causes birth defects, aseptic meningitis and encephalitis but only comes about from rodents.9 The list of symptoms initially can include fever, aches and pains, headaches and nausea with illness setting in 1 – 2 weeks after infection. The second phase is far more serious and symptoms can include drowsiness, confusion, poor motor skills and even fluid on the brain. Despite the fact it is easy to kill with heat, disinfectants, some detergents and a few other methods it continues to periodically break out.
3 Symptoms of Salmonella and how it is spread
The means of transmission from your reptile is faecal to oral route and touching contaminated surfaces or objects which includes clothing.
This was apparent in one case that occurred in California in 2001 where an infant was taken to hospital and found to have Salmonella. There were no reptiles in the child’s home but the child’s father was a biologist for a school and handled reptiles, in this case a snake. He did not change his clothes before picking up his child.2 He knew reptiles carried the bacteria, but perhaps he didn’t realise what little contact it took to contaminate others.
In Australia a 4 year old became infected by the families eastern bearded dragon (Pogona barbata) even though they state the child was never in direct contact with the reptile.3
If Salmonella is present it can spread everywhere, into their water and anywhere else they contact, including pet owners clothes. Being aware means you can take the right precautions to ensure risks are mitigated.
Signs of Salmonella bacteria infection include flu like symptoms and can progress to severe illness. Specific symptoms include fever, diarrhea, headaches and abdominal cramps potentially going on to septicaemia. Some people will not require treatment. In fact some will never know they have been infected as illness passes within days in many cases, so if it is a mild infection they may not seek medical intervention. The true infection rate is difficult to determine as mild symptoms may never be associated with a salmonella infection either because medical assistance is not sought and/or it is not properly diagnosed and is passed over for some other common illness.
Salmonella in bearded dragons
Reptiles can carry Salmonella bacteria in their intestinal tract, or if they do not already have it, it can be unwittingly introduced such as through feeding mice pups. The bacteria will be intermittently or continuously shed in their feces.
Most infected bearded dragon will not show any clinical signs of illness. Getting them tested for salmonella is not necessarily helpful since it is easy to get false negatives from test results. Even if they are infected, unless they become ill, treatment is not recommended.4
“Reptiles that develop salmonellosis commonly show signs of septicaemia (characterised by anorexia and listlessness), pneumonia, coelomitis and hypovolaemic shock. Osteomyelitis, osteoarthritis, necrotising enteritis and subcutaneous and internal granulomas or abscesses are reported(Jacobson 2007; CFSPH 2013).“4
14 tips to staying safe
Imagine this. Your baby, or perhaps a nephew, niece, grandchild, pregnant wife or elderly grandpa becomes seriously ill and is hospitalised. It turns out they contracted a disease from your bearded dragon. What is going to happen to the bearded dragon? The point is simply to play it safe. Put in the necessary precautions and enjoy your pet. It doesn’t have to end up being a victim of circumstances we have control over. Here are some recommendations:
- Clean the enclosure, accessories and equipment with appropriate disinfectants such as the readily available Veterinary grade disinfectant by F10 (available on Amazon).
- 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.5
- 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.
- Wash your hands thoroughly.
- Ensure that any young children that touch your bearded dragon or anything the animal has come in contact with wash their hands. Children have a tendency to put their hands in their mouths so this must be monitored.
- Do not take your bearded dragon into the kitchen or any other food preparation or eating area.
- Never clean or take your reptiles food bowls or other containers it has come in contact with in the kitchen. That includes the dishwasher.
- Do not eat, smoke or drink around your bearded dragon or perform any other activity that will involve hand to mouth.
- Do not place the bearded dragon or any reptile on or any item meant for an infant.
- Salmonella can also be on your clothes, take precautions before holding an infant.
- Do not let your bearded dragon run around the house.
- Never kiss your bearded dragon.
- Don’t feed mice pups.
References and further reading
- A Multistate Investigation of Antibiotic-Resistant Salmonella enterica Serotype I 4,,12:i:- Infections as Part of an International Outbreak Associated with Frozen Feeder Rodents. Zoonoses and Public Health, 63: 62–71. Cartwright, E. J., Nguyen, T., Melluso, C., Ayers, T., Lane, C., Hodges, A., Li, X., Quammen, J., Yendell, S. J., Adams, J., Mitchell, J., Rickert, R., Klos, R., Williams, I. T., Barton Behravesh, C. and Wright, J. (2016), doi: 10.1111/zph.12205
- Reptile Associated Salmonellosis December 12, 2003 52(40);1206-1209 – Child contracts Salmonella from fathers clothes
- Salmonella Rubislaw gastoenteritis linked to pet lizard. The Medical Journal of Australia 2010; 193
- WHA Fact sheet: Salmonellosis in Australian reptiles July 2017, Wildlife Health Australia
- 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
- Reptiles pose a risk of salmonella infection. Public Health England, London, 2015
- Turtles and other reptiles are risky pets. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, USA
- Reducing the risks of Salmonella infection from Reptiles. Public Health England in association with the Department of Health and Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. November 2014
- Edison L, Knust B, Petersen B, et al. Trace-Forward Investigation of Mice in Response to Lymphocytic Choriomeningitis Virus Outbreak. Emerging Infectious Diseases. 2014;20(2):291-295. doi:10.3201/eid2010.130861.
- Worms and Germs Blog. Dr Scott Weese and Maureen Anderson of the Ontario Veterinary College’s Centre for Public Health and Zoonoses
- Onderka DK, Finlayson MC. Salmonellae and salmonellosis in captive reptiles. Canadian Journal of Comparative Medicine. 1985;49(3):268-270.
- Potential Zoonoses/Hazards Associated with Reptiles. Cornell University. Cornell Center for animal Resources and Education