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I'm not a snake owner (though I'm considering becoming one), however I've handled snakes belonging to friends.

I've been told you should always wash your hands after handling snakes because of a salmonella risk. However, I've also seen or heard about owners letting snakes go through their clothes (sleeves, for example), on furniture, including their own beds.

Is letting your snake slither about the place ever a problem in terms of salmonella? Or are hands simply the main/biggest problem because of eg. food handling?

  • I've owned reptiles for years, and while I always wash my hands after, I've never disinfected the couch/floor they ran on. I've never gotten sick from them. I can't say that I recommend this approach, but it also shouldn't be a huge factor in whether or not you get one. – Carcigenicate Feb 8 '15 at 19:46
  • I've handled snakes all my life, and I've never make a habit of washing my hands either before or after. And I have had no problems. I like to avoid making habits. Keeps me awake. If my hands need washing, I wash them. Snakes are clean beasties. If an owner makes the snake live in a tank it has pooed in, they have to take the consequence. My snakes generally poo when I put them on the grass. – P i May 12 '16 at 1:02
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It's nothing to worry about unless you're under the age of 5 and your immune system is still developing, or you're sick and/or elderly with a compromised immune system.

About Salmonella:

According to the numbers from the CDC, if you're hospitalized with a case of salmonella poisoning, you have barely less than a 1% chance of it being lethal. But, that's only accounting for the 42,000 cases that require medical attention. According to their estimates of cases that go unreported. There are about 1,218,000 cases of salmonella poisoning each year. That makes a whopping 3% of cases that require treatment from a doctor.

But it's not like you can't prevent salmonella poisoning.

So basically, if you've gotten salmonella poisoning from your pet, it means you've ingested their feces. If the idea of eating your pet's feces sounds absolutely appalling to you, then congratulations, you've taken the biggest step into avoiding getting salmonella poisoning from your pet.

Salmonella and Reptiles:

With terrestrial (and arboreal) reptiles, like most snakes and lizards, it's pretty easy to avoid getting salmonella poisoning from. Simply ensure that they live in a sanitary environment by inspecting their cage daily for feces that need to be removed. This should be easy, as you should enjoy looking at your pet at least once a day.

When you notice feces in their enclosure, simply dispose of it in a sanitary fashion. You can grab it with gloves or paper towels if you're comfortable doing something like that, or you can purchase reptile scoops (which look like cat litter scoops but smaller). The faster you can dispose of the feces the better, as it will keep the bacteria from spreading from the feces into the bedding of the enclosure. I will also throw away a handful of the substrate surrounding the feces as an extra measure to keeping it clean.

You can also purchase terrarium cleaning agents to help you keep your pet's enclosure minty fresh.

With aquatic reptiles, like turtles, you will have a higher risk of coming into contact with the salmonella bacteria because the animals will defecate in the water, which will then spread the bacteria throughout the water in the tank.

What this means is that you will have to wash your hands every time you come into contact with the water in their tank. Regular water changes, and a good filter on the tank, will help keep the water clean and reduce any bacteria growth. Both are important for the health of the reptile anyways.

Note: This also applies to the water in fish aquariums, and there's an interesting article that suggests that 60% of salmonella poisoning cases might come from contact with water in fish tanks.

Conclusion:

As long as you take care of your reptile, and keep its enclosure clean, the chance of you getting salmonella poisoning from it is extremely low. Salmonella poisoning isn't even something healthy adults should worry about as the vast majority of people who become ill only notice minor effects for a few days, attributing it to other factors like food poisoning.

Because salmonella poisoning comes from ingesting the bacteria, it's easy to prevent infection by washing your hands regularly, whether it's after you handle your reptile, or before you eat, and by sanitizing areas where you prepare food.

Salmonella poisoning is only a real concern for people with immune systems that are still developing (children under 5), and people with compromised immune systems (the sick and the elderly), so it would probably be best for them not to handle reptiles.

The reason why salmonella poisoning is so over-hyped with reptiles, is from misunderstanding that not all reptiles are the same. Aquatic reptiles pose a higher risk because of their feces spreading the bacteria in the water, but terrestrial reptiles pose no more risk than other terrestrial pets. Likewise, aquatic reptiles will pose the same risk as other aquatic pets, which also defecate in their water, such as fish.

Anecdotal Data:

Personally, I don't allow any of my pets onto the kitchen table or counters where I would be preparing food. This includes my cats who could also be considered carriers of the bacteria. But if I let my bearded dragon outside his terrarium, I don't bother cleaning everything he touches, just whatever he defecates on (if he does).

I not only own reptiles and fish, but have worked in a pet store and spent several hours a day having my hands in both fish and reptile tanks without ever contracting salmonella poisoning.

  • It does seem the consensus is steering a bit more towards your view - and it's kinda more consistent with the way other snake owners I know have behaved. So I'm going to change my accepted answer. Thanks! – Andrey Feb 9 '15 at 10:52
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Snakes can give you Salmonella bacteria in your blood through cuts and open wounds. They can also get in through your food and cause the food poisoning. Everywhere they touch should be disinfected and you should limit where they touch, as it may cost you or your family their life. You will touch everywhere so if they touch everywhere it is impossible for you to avoid it, at all times. If you keep them in large cages, then you should be able to control where they touch.


The CDC said in Reptiles, Amphibians, and Salmonella:

Did you know that reptiles and amphibians like turtles, lizards, and frogs can carry a harmful germ called Salmonella? If there are young children in your home, reptiles and amphibians might not be safe pets for your family.

And they say in the same article:

Although many people think that Salmonella infections are caused only by contaminated food, these germs can also be caught by handling animals, including reptiles or amphibians.

That being said having the snakes slither everywhere is not safe. Because if they slither across your blanket, textbook, pants, table, etc you can't be sure everyone will clean every surface before eating and if they don't and they accidentally read the textbook(or touch something) your snake touched before eating, they are at risk for being infected.

Reptiles and amphibians might have Salmonella germs on their bodies even when they appear healthy and clean.

That same article says to wash hands and limit the area where a snake touches.


Additional Info

fda.gov

Signs & Symptoms of Salmonella in an Open Wound

  • Well researched and written, thanks. Kinda puts me off owning a snake, too :) – Andrey Feb 8 '15 at 9:53
  • @Andrey It shouldn't be a problem if you push cleanliness and watch young children. Snakes are a really rewarding pet to have. But each to his own :) – Pobrecita Feb 8 '15 at 9:55
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    "Cost you and your family their life" salmonella isn't that dangerous except to young children with weak immune systems or old people with other problems. In fact, for most people it doesn't even require medication and will have you sick for a few days until it wears away. Other animals (like birds), can carry salmonella, and other animals have their own possible diseases to carry. Disinfecting everything really isn't necessary as I wouldn't believe salmonella would be harbored on couches and what not. This answer is too discouraging, it makes it seem like owning a reptile endangers your life. – Mozein Feb 9 '15 at 8:39
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I got very ill and ended up going emergency centre to be told I had caught a servere stomach infection. I had not ate anything bad or under cooked etc. But I had 1 my snakes out for a good hour. She sits on my chest or Curtis round I my fingers. I put her away as I went to bed. As I got in bed a ate a couple cookies. When I woke up in the morning I had servere sickness and diarrhea. Pain was so intense and any fluid I drank even a sip I brought straight back up. It took 2 days to get fluid to stay down. This is only time I've ever not washed my hands after handling so I would say airways wash your hands just incase

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