Can my reptile make me sick?

Most, if not all, reptiles carry Salmonella bacteria in their intestinal tract and intermittently or continuously shed these bacteria in their faeces. Salmonella bacteria usually do not cause any illness in reptiles but can cause serious illness in people. It is the same kind of bacteria often associated with food poisoning.

If you keep reptiles and are sensible about hygiene, it is an issue that can be easily prevented or avoided.

Salmonella transmission from reptiles

Salmonella bacteria are easily spread from reptiles to people. You may become infected when you place your hands in your mouth after contacting objects that have been in contact with reptile droppings. For example, infants have become infected after drinking from bottles of infant formula that became contaminated during preparation, when the people that prepared the formula had not washed their hands after touching a reptile or because reptiles were allowed to walk on kitchen counters. Simply touching or holding reptiles will not result in spread of bacteria – transmission requires something contaminated with reptile faeces or the actual reptile being placed in the mouth.

Salmonella and people

Most Salmonella infections in people result in a mild, self-limiting illness characterised by diarrhoea, fever, and abdominal cramps. However, the infection can spread to the bloodstream, bone marrow, or nervous system, leading to severe, and sometimes fatal, illness. Such severe infections are more likely to occur in infants and in individuals whose immune system is compromised (for instance, bone marrow transplant recipients, people with HIV or diabetes mellitus, and chemotherapy patients).

Diagnosis and treatment of Salmonella in reptiles

Attempts to raise or identify reptiles who do not carry Salmonella bacteria have been unsuccessful; therefore, bacterial culture of faecal samples in an attempt to identify reptiles that are not carrying Salmonella bacteria is not recommended. Unfortunately, Salmonella bacteria cannot be eliminated from the intestinal tract of reptiles. Administration of antibiotics to eliminate these bacteria has been unsuccessful and may result in emergence of Salmonella bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics.

Preventing infection in people

Fortunately, the spread of Salmonella bacteria from reptiles to people can be easily prevented by using the following routine precautions:

  • Always wash your hands with hot, soapy water after handling reptiles, reptile cages and equipment, and the stool of reptiles.
  • Do not allow reptiles to have access to the kitchen, dining room, or any other area in which food is prepared or eaten. Also, do not allow reptiles to have access to bathroom sinks and tubs or to any area where infants are bathed. Consider keeping your reptiles caged or limiting the parts of the house where reptiles are allowed to roam free. Always wash your hands after coming into contact with any area where reptiles are allowed to roam free.
  • Do not eat, drink, or smoke while handling reptiles, reptile cages, or reptile equipment. Do not kiss reptiles or share food or drink with them.
  • Do not use the kitchen sink, kitchen counters, bathroom sinks, or bathtubs to bathe reptiles or to wash reptile cages, dishes, or aquariums. Reptile owners may wish to purchase a plastic basin or tub in which to bathe or swim their reptiles. Wastewater and faecal material should be disposed of in the toilet instead of the bathtub or household sink.
  • It is recommended that children less than five years of age avoid contact with reptiles and households with children less than one year of age not own reptiles. Reptile owners with young children should discuss steps to minimise risks associated with owning reptiles with their veterinarian and their physician. Children should be supervised when they are handling reptiles to ensure that they do not place their hands or objects that a reptile has contacted in their mouths. Reptiles should not be kept in childcare centres.
  • Immunocompromised persons should avoid contact with reptiles.
  • Follow instructions from your reptile’s veterinarian concerning proper diet and environment for your reptile. Healthy reptiles living in proper environments, under minimal or no stress, are less likely to shed Salmonella bacteria.
This article was authored by:
Bob Doneley BVSc FANZCVS (Avian Medicine)
Professor, Avian and Exotic Pet Service
Registered Specialist in Bird Medicine


​​Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases. (2022) Healthy pets, healthy people: Reptiles and amphibians. Accessed 26 Jun 2023

Also Read

Updated on July 17, 2023

RSPCA Australia believes that captive-bred wild animals should not be kept in a home environment or for companion purposes unless the species has been clearly identified as being suitable for this purpose. It is important that animals living in a home environment can live a good life. This means providing for their physical health and ensuring opportunities to fully express their individual interests and experience good welfare. Inadequate care and husbandry are reported to contribute to common and serious welfare compromises in many captive wild animals living in home environments. For more information see our policy.

The reality is, however, that captive-bred wild animals are kept in home environments despite sometimes not meeting these criteria (e.g., some reptile and bird species). Because of this, the RSPCA has produced these articles on the care and welfare of a variety of commonly kept captive-bred wild animals. The aim is to help people better understand their animals as individuals and provide them with care that keeps them healthy and provides opportunities for positive mental experiences as much as possible in captivity.

Wild animals must not be taken from the wild to be kept as companion animals (pets).

  • Home
  • Companion Animals
  • Other Pets
  • Reptiles

Was this article helpful?