Health officials are warning fans of lizards known as bearded dragons to keep them away from young children and use careful hygiene following a two-year, multistate outbreak of salmonella poisoning tied to the unusual pets.
At least 132 people in 31 states have been sickened since Feb. 21, 2012, including 28 who were hospitalized. Most of the victims were children aged 5 or younger whose parents likely got the critters from pet stores, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The culprit is salmonella Cotham, a rare strain of bacteria that can cause serious illness in the very young, the very old and people with compromised immune systems.
A cluster of salmonella Cotham cases tied to pet reptiles was first reported in Wisconsin in January. Since 2012, 12 people in that state were sickened by the rare strain and 10 of them reported contact with bearded dragons, an analysis showed. Given the rarity of the strain and the outbreak in Wisconsin, CDC officials analyzed all salmonella Cotham cases in the agency's PulseNet tracking system since 2012 and came up with the latest number.
This is just the latest salmonella outbreak involving bearded dragons. CDC officials warned in 2011 about an outbreak of salmonella that occurred when a home cook who kept pet lizards made turkey gravy that sickened 19 people at a Thanksgiving dinner.
To prevent future outbreaks, CDC officials say that children younger than 5, older adults and people with weak immune systems should not handle or touch the reptiles, or anything in the area where they live and roam.
The critters should not be allowed to roam freely, or in areas where food or drink is prepared, served or stored, including outdoor patios. Bearded dragons should never be bathed in household sinks or bathtubs, where salmonella can linger, but in a tub or pin used only for reptiles. Their cages or tanks should be cleaned outside, too.
Pet owners should use soap and water to wash their hands immediately after touching the reptiles and then thoroughly disinfect any surfaces they touch.
People who become ill after touching bearded dragons should seek medical care.