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Is it safe to have an iguana in a home with young children?
Q: My 3-year-old son recently visited the home of his preschool classmate and played with the family’s pet iguana. The family also has a little baby. I heard that iguanas might be dangerous for children and babies. Please give me more information on this.
Lorna Baton Rouge
A: Lorna, you’re right. Pet reptiles and amphibians (including iguanas, turtles, lizards, snakes, frogs, toads, newts and salamanders) can carry dangerous infections. The U.S. centres for Disease Control (CDC) has reported many cases of young children who became ill with bloody diarrhea and fever from salmonella after being exposed to pet reptiles and amphibians that were found to carry the bacteria. Salmonella infection is most dangerous for infants and young children, as well as people with weakened immune systems (e.g., from HIV/AIDS or cancer chemotherapy).

Salmonella is carried in reptiles’ and amphibians’ intestinal tract and spread by their feces. Children can catch the infection by touching animals whose bodies have become contaminated by their feces, and then putting their hands in their mouths. However, some children can become ill from contact with their parents’ hands and clothes, food prepared by the parents, and touching surfaces such as cages, countertops and floors contaminated by the pet feces.

In 1975 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the sale of small turtles, which is estimated to have prevented many cases of salmonella infection in children. However, children continue to be at risk for infection by the increased number of families and childcare centres that keep reptiles and amphibians as pets.

The CDC recommended the following precautions to reduce the risk of serious salmonella infections associated with pet reptiles and amphibians:

  • Do not keep pet reptiles and amphibians in homes or childcare centres with children under age 5 or people with weakened immune systems.

  • Do not let pet reptiles or amphibians roam throughout the house. In particular, keep them out of kitchens and eating areas.

  • After handling reptiles and amphibians, or cleaning their cages, wash your hands thoroughly in soap and water.
For more information, visit the CDC website, www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5249a3.htm.
Karen Sokal-Gutierrez M.D., M.P.H. Pediatrician