Tropical fish, reptiles and turtles can be great pets. While they may not be cuddly they can be lovely and even affectionate companions. Keeping pets come with responsibilities. As well as keeping your pet healthy, providing appropriate housing and food, you should also be aware that these animals carry some health risks to you.
Reptiles and tropical fish can cause infections and illness in people
Pets such as tropical fish and reptiles (such as turtles, lizards and snakes) can carry diseases that can be transferred to humans. Even if your pet looks healthy they can still carry germs (such as bacteria, viruses and parasites). Pets, and the items pets are in contact with, can transfer germs to humans. These germs can cause infection and illness.
People most at risk are:
- people with weakened immune systems
- elderly people
- children under five.
Bacteria can enter the body though wounds on the skin
Some bacteria from reptiles and tropical fish can enter the body through cuts and scratches on the skin. This can cause skin infections, or the infection may spread to other parts of the body.
Salmonella can be picked up from handling pets and pet food
Tropical fish and reptiles can carry the Salmonella bacteria in their digestive system (gut), which are excreted in their droppings (poo). Bacteria, such as Salmonella, can cause gastroenteritis in people after being swallowed.
The Salmonella bacteria do not usually cause reptiles or fish to be ill, but they can still spread the disease to people. The bacteria can contaminate the pets themselves and their surroundings, including the water in aquariums. People may become infected after handling or cleaning up after pets, and not washing their hands thoroughly afterwards.
Common symptoms of Salmonella gastroenteritis include:
- stomach pains
Some people keep animals such as mice or rats as live food for reptiles. It is important to remember that these animals may also carry harmful bacteria like Salmonella.
You can take action to avoid getting sick from handling your pet.
While it is impossible to eliminate disease-causing bacteria from animals, you can prevent the spread from your pets to you and your family by following the simple advice below.
When handling reptiles and tropical fish:
- Always wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water after touching your pet and anything in the area where they live or roam (such as their habitat, food or equipment).
- Always supervise children closely when they are around your pet and ensure they always wash their hands after handling the pet or its surrounds.
- Keep the pet away from your mouth and your food, and teach children not to bring them close to their face.
- Avoid direct handling of your pet (including its food and its surroundings) if you have cuts, scratches, blisters or sores on your hands or arms. Cover all breaks in your skin with waterproof band aids or dressings, and wear disposable gloves while handling your pets.
- Wear gloves or use scoops instead of putting bare hands and arms into an aquarium.
- Discourage elderly people, children younger than five, sick people or people with weakened immune systems from directly handling reptiles and fish.
- Salmonella bacteria can be on your reptile’s skin so it is important to wash clothes that reptiles have come into contact with. When handling your reptile, use a towel or cloth over your clothes that is used only for this purpose.
Confine your pet
Always keep your pet in appropriately designed housing - do not allow your pet to roam around the house.
Keep your pet, its food, food containers and housing (tank/aquarium) out of the kitchen or any food storage or preparation areas.
Cleaning your pet
Always wear disposable gloves when cleaning your pet’s tank/aquarium.
Don’t bathe your pet or clean its housing in your bathroom, kitchen or other areas where food is prepared or eaten. Do this outside, or use a tub or bin that is used only for your pet.
When cleaning the tank/aquarium use hot soapy water, rinse well and dry.
Do not dispose of aquarium water into your kitchen sink. Pour it down the laundry sink and clean the sink immediately.
Monitor your pet’s health
Check your pet for signs of illness, and seek advice from a vet if they become unwell.
Remember that ill or dead animals may be very infectious, and should be handled and disposed of with extra care.
What to do if you become ill
If you or a family member becomes ill with an unusual skin infection or severe gastroenteritis, visit your doctor and remember to tell them about your contact with tropical fish or reptiles.
Where to get help
This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by:
Department of Health and Human Services - RHP&R - Health Protection - Communicable Disease Prevention and Control Unit
Content on this website is provided for education and information purposes only. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your doctor or other registered health professional. Content has been prepared for Victorian residents and wider Australian audiences, and was accurate at the time of publication. Readers should note that, over time, currency and completeness of the information may change. All users are urged to always seek advice from a registered health care professional for diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.