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Can Exotic Pets Make My Kids Sick?

Exotic Pets Can Carry Disease, but How Big is the Risk?

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In October of 2008, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a study entitled Exposure to Nontraditional Pets at Home and to Animals in Public Settings: Risks to Children (by Larry K. Pickering, MD, Nina Marano, DVM, MPH, Joseph A. Bocchini, MD, Frederick J. Angulo, DVM, PhD and the Committee on Infectious Diseases).

This study, and the focus of subsequent news coverage, could be a bit scary for exotic pet owners with kids, but it is important to have some perspective about the risks.

Can Exotic Pets Make Kids Sick?
There is always a risk that kids (or adults) could become ill from exposure to any kind of animal. The decision on whether to have a pet requires weighing the risks against the benefits for the whole family. It's definitely important to make an educated decision -- it is important to find out what risks of illness or injury may be associated with exotic pets you bring into your household, and what precautions can minimize the risks if you do decide to get an exotic pet. Recommendations such as those contained in this study are something potential pet owners with kids should consider as part of the decision.

Zoonoses are diseases that are transmitted to humans from animals, and exotic pets can carry their fair share of such diseases -- but it is important to remember that exotic pets are not the only pets who can carry diseases transmissible to humans. It's good for owners, veterinarians, doctors and public health officials to be aware of the diseases that pets could carry. However, the study doesn't indicate how often these diseases occur, so it is hard to evaluate the level of risk. I certainly don't want to downplay the risks, because some of the illnesses mentioned, like Salmonella from reptiles and chicks, are a serious concern, but it's also important not to panic. For more information about some diseases that can be carried by exotic pets, see What is a Zoonosis?.

Other Reasons Exotic Pets and Young Kids Might Not Mix
It's also important to note that many exotic pets are not ideal for young children, because they sometimes do not like being handled the way children like to handle them. Even animals commonly considered as pets for kids, such as bunnies and hamsters, will sometimes scratch and bite if they do not want to be picked up (and most young kids will want to pick up their pets). Kids often lose interest in these pets because they do not interact in the way kids would like them to.

Other Issues Raised by the Study
The study certainly brings up some valid concerns about the potential for spreading disease via the pet trade, such as the lack of health screening on imported animals and the mixing of animals in holding facilities. There is also the confusing patchwork of regulations that cover the pet trade in the United States -- various agencies are involved, some federal and some state; the regulatory agencies tend to vary by species and state. Then there is the illegal trade in wild animals, which bypasses whatever regulations may be in place.

There is also much concern about the lack of education of new owners about the potential risks of exotic pets, as well as reasonable expectations for exotic pets (e.g. their care, behavior, and adult size). This study urges those considering a new exotic pet to consult with their veterinarian about proper care and potential risks, as well as consulting a doctor about health concerns (especially with young children, immunocompromised individuals, and those suffering allergies or asthma). It also advocates veterinarians and physicians working together to educate pet owners about possible risks from pets.

Recommendations Arising From The Study
Table 3 of Exposure to Nontraditional Pets at Home and to Animals in Public Settings: Risks to Children contains a series of recommendations to prevent problems on a number of levels, such as general practices to prevent illness or injury, considerations for animals in public setting and visiting schools, and animal specific recommendations. Most of the recommendations are good ones, dealing with concerns such as hygiene and safety precautions.

Concerns About the Study
I suspect some exotic pet owners will be a bit panicked when they read about this study, as it makes exotic / non-traditional pets sound terribly risky, if only by the range of awful diseases the study mentions. As mentioned before, there is no indication of how frequently most of these illnesses have occured, so it is difficult to really evaluate the risks. However, my main concern that studies like this may create a climate of fear about keeping exotic pets. I do not disagree with the basic premise of the study -- that there are risks, and being educated about them is important (indeed, you may want to think twice about having certain pets in your home if you have young children or immunocompromised individuals in your home). However, it concerns me when exotic pets are singled out like they were in this case, since there are risks with any pet, traditional or not.

In any case, rather than relying on some of the fear-inducing news headlines this study generated, you may want to read over Exposure to Nontraditional Pets at Home and to Animals in Public Settings: Risks to Children yourself.

More about Exotic Pets and Kids:

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  3. Exotic Pets
  4. Resources for Exotic Pet Owners
  5. Health and Safety Issues
  6. Exotic Pets and Sick Kids - Can Exotic Pets Make Kids Sick - American Academy of Pediatrics

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