Snakes Alive!


 By Dr Dorianne Elliott, Onderstepoort Bird and Exotic Animal Clinic

What You Should Know About Pet Reptiles And Safety

The hobby of keeping reptiles as pets is booming. This is hardly surprising considering the fantastic variety of shapes, colours and sizes represented by the species common in the trade.  Although these fascinating animals can make intriguing pets, they can also potentially carry diseases of concern to human health.

Salmonella … It’s Not Just A “Chicken” Thing

Many snakes and lizards carry a bacterium in their intestines named salmonella that can cause severe diarrhoea (and even death in some rare instances) in people. Young children, the aged and individuals with weak immune systems are most susceptible.

No Kissing!

The chances of becoming ill through contact with reptiles can be minimised by following several sensible steps:


  • Hands should be washed in a good, broad-spectrum disinfectant after handling reptiles or cleaning cages etc. One should never allow reptiles to come into contact with your mouth (kissing) and individuals in the higher risk categories should rather be encouraged to consider another type of pet.
  • Children should be supervised and correctly educated on gentle and hygienic handling of their reptile (or any) pet. Conscientious hand washing can easily be taught even to young children. Nevertheless, children under the age of five years are much more susceptible to salmonella infection and it is recommended that such young children not be allowed contact with reptiles.

Biosecurity is the term used to describe the combination of good hygiene and prevention of the spread of disease that is so important when dealing with collections of animals. Many herpers (the term for reptile and amphibian keepers) begin with one or two animals but when the bug bites, as it were, they begin to collect more and rarer species and end up with sizeable collections.

Trussssst Me … I’m Not Sick!

It is often difficult to tell whether an animal, especially a reptile, is harbouring a potentially dangerous infection. They may look and act completely healthy for weeks or even months before becoming visibly ill.  Worse, they may continue to appear healthy while at the same time spreading infection to other members of the collection. For this reason, never ever buy an animal because you feel sorry for it. You are not being a good Samaritan by choosing the smallest and most pathetic looking animal in the pet shop cage, rather, you are placing risk upon the animals already in your care.

Careful Selection Is A Key

Only choose animals from reputable sources, choose the largest and strongest members of the batch and place any new arrivals in quarantine (this means keeping them in separate cages, in a room far from the rest of your animals) for at least three months. Remember also that any bowls, cage decorations and even your hands need to be disinfected between cages.  Naturally, regular and thorough cage cleaning is very important.

Control, Control, Control

Good control of parasites is also very important. New arrivals should be parasite flushed. Your reptile vet can assist you with this. Also examine your pet carefully for mites and other ‘goggas’. Apart from causing irritation and discomfort to the animal, these parasites suck blood and can transmit disease between animals. Your vet can assist you with safe control of mites and other parasites. When choosing a suitable disinfectant, look for one that is properly tested for use in reptiles, also one that is harmless when in contact with your skin or the reptile itself. A good product should have known activity against the more common reptile bacteria and viruses and should leave no residues or stains on your cages, carpets etc. We have used F10SC Disinfectant in the practice for several years with good results.

Get Educated For Successful Herping

Reptiles are primitive creatures, they struggle to adapt to environmental conditions other than those to which they have been exposed over millions of years. For this reason, it is absolutely imperative that you first and foremost educate yourself on the exact requirements of the animal you purchase, so that you can offer it an environment as close to the natural as possible. As an example, Boa Constrictors and Burmese Pythons are tropical snakes. They are suited to extremely warm and humid conditions. It is for this reason that they do not live happily in our dry and sometimes cool environment and need special (and potentially expensive) caging. Corn and Rat snakes, coming from North America are adapted to hibernate throughout the winter. They (unlike tropical snakes!) need a winter cooling off period to allow their bodies to cycle naturally. Bearded Dragon lizards from Australia need to have a hot spot in their cages for basking. They naturally bask in the sun to warm up their bodies to a ‘turbo charged’ temperature where they can hunt and digest food most effectively. They also need at least three hours of unfiltered (i.e. not through a window) sunlight daily in order to have strong bones. There is an enormous amount of good information available both on the internet and from your reptile vet, from reputable breeders and specialist pet shops. Always check any information you receive to ensure it is correct. A reptile kept in a suitable captive environment has a much lower chance of becoming ill than a stressed reptile. This means a longer, healthier life for your pet as well as the minimum risk to you, your family and your other animals.  Happy Herping!



©Pet’s Health

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