Preventing the Transmission of Salmonella from Pets to People

An iVillage interview with Leonard Marcus, M.D., D.V.M.

Did you know that salmonella is the most widespread and common disease transmitted from animals to humans? It can be transmitted from the stool of virtually any vertebrate animal, (reptile, mammal, bird or amphibian).

How can pet owners prevent the passage of salmonella to a child or another person in the home from a pet?

By far the single most important issue has to do with the sanitation of the animal's fecal material. If dogs are defecating out on the lawn, their feces should be removed in a sanitary fashion, so that there is not direct contact with that material, such as with a shovel or plastic bag. And always wash your hands thoroughly afterward.

Hand washing is the single most important issue of all, so no matter what you touch that could be contaminated by the animal's stool, whether it's the contents of an animal's cage, dirt out in the garden or grass where animals have defecated, any contact with objects that could be polluted should always be followed by a thorough hand washing. (For normal hand washing, you should scrub for 30 seconds).

How would the use of an antibacterial lotion affect the transmission of salmonella?

One of the most effective ways of washing your hands is with a soapless hand sanitizer. These are made up of an active ingredient of 60 or 70 percent alcohol. One of the most popular is Purell, though there are many other brands on the market. This is more effective than a soap-and-water wash.

What should a parent do if their child has contact with pet feces?

First, wash the child's hands immediately. Then, it's a matter of observation. Watch for a fever, diarrhea or abdominal cramps. If any of these symptoms arise, you should take the child to a pediatrician or a medical facility right away. Usually salmonella that involves only the intestinal tract is treated with fluid replacement. Antibiotics generally are not given unless the germs have gotten beyond the intestine and into the blood stream.

Are there any special precautions that should be taken in a household with cats?

Keep your cats indoors and feed them cooked or commercial pet food. When a cat is allowed to go outdoors, it can be infected by contact with birds and rodents.

What about precautions with small animals that are kept in an aquarium or cage, such as a pet turtle?

For pet turtles, other reptiles or rodents that are kept in small cages, there are many things to be aware of. The cage, water bowl and other cage contents should not be washed in the kitchen sink. It's amazing how often that happens. Many times, busy parents just pour the old water down the kitchen sink and then later set produce in the sink to be washed and cross-contamination occurs.

As for washing pet bowls in the dishwasher, you probably could get away with that at a high enough temperature, such as with a dishwasher with a sterilization setting, but my preference would be to hand wash pet dishes wearing rubber gloves in a laundry sink. Bleach will effectively kill salmonella, and a sink can be rinsed out in this way. It is important to note that water and food bowls should not be cleaned with bleach. This could poison the animal.

Leonard Marcus, M.D., D.V.M., is a member of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene

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