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Preventing the Transmission of Infectious Diseases in Reptiles

Developed with and approved by a qualified veterinarian.

Bearded Dragon

Types of infectious diseases in reptiles

Reptiles can transmit disease-causing bacteria, such as salmonella. Salmonella bacteria can cause salmonellosis, a serious gastrointestinal disease in people.

Overview of infectious diseases

Companion animals can carry disease-causing bacteria such as salmonella. Even healthy reptiles can carry this bacteria, since it is a normal inhabitant of a reptile’s gastrointestinal system. Reptiles who carry this bacteria generally do not show any signs of illness.

Salmonella is an orally transmitted, infectious, disease-causing bacteria generally acquired through contact with a reptile’s fecal matter. Human infection can take place by touching your mouth after not washing your hands following contact with a reptile, the reptile’s habitat, décor or substrate.

Salmonella is of greatest concern for children because of their immature immune systems.

Precautions to take when handling reptiles:

  • Always wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water or use hand sanitizer or antibacterial gel after coming into contact with any reptile, water they have contaminated or any accessories or surfaces in their habitats
  • Always carry disinfectant if you are handling reptiles outside your home or in areas that lack proper handwashing facilities
  • If transporting a reptile to a classroom, make sure proper handwashing and cleaning facilities are available; do not take a reptile for show-and-tell to a kindergarten or day care classroom, where there are children under 5 years old
  • Keep reptile enclosures, water and food bowls, décor and other surfaces as clean as possible and free of soiled bedding
  • Clean habitats in well-ventilated areas or outside; wear powder-free rubber, latex, vinyl or nitrile gloves, and wash hands thoroughly when you are done
    • Once the habitat is free of organic material, disinfect it with a diluted bleach solution (1/2 cup of bleach to 1 gallon of warm water)
    • Let the bleach solution remain on the habitat’s surfaces and on all food bowls, water dishes, hide huts, etc., for 10 minutes
    • Thoroughly rinse with warm water; allow the habitat and its contents to completely dry before placing the animal and the contents back into the habitat
  • Closely supervise young children when cleaning habitats and ensure they wash their hands immediately after handling pet reptiles or their habitats or bedding; children under 5 years of age should not help clean habitats or their contents
  • Do not handle reptiles or habitat furnishings with open sores or cuts on your hands; wear powder-free disposable gloves
  • Never let your mouth come into contact with your reptile; some people like to give their pet reptile an occasional affectionate kiss, but this practice should be avoided as it can transmit a disease to the person kissing the animal
  • Pet reptiles should be kept out of the kitchen and other areas where food is prepared; kitchen sinks and bathtubs should not be used to bathe reptiles, clean habitats or wash companion animal items
    • If using an indoor basin is unavoidable, use the bathtub (never the kitchen sink) and thoroughly disinfect it afterward
  • If you handle a reptile, do not touch food, dishes, pots, pans or other utensils in the kitchen until you have washed your hands thoroughly
  • Pet reptiles should not be allowed to roam freely throughout the home or living area
  • Persons at increased risk of infection or serious complications from salmonellosis (such as children younger than 5, immunocompromised persons, the elderly and pregnant women or women who are trying to become pregnant) should avoid contact with reptiles, and reptiles should be kept out of their households

By following safe animal handling practices, you can help ensure safety for both you and your pet.  

FAQs 

  • Can you get salmonella from lizards? Yes. As reptiles, lizards can carry salmonella in their gastrointestinal tracts and spread it to humans who don’t wash their hands after handling them.
  • What diseases do snakes carry? Snakes can carry both parasites and salmonella bacteria in their gastrointestinal tracts without any signs and can transmit these organisms through their feces to people, where they can cause serious infections.
  • Can snakes give you salmonella? Yes. Snakes can carry salmonella bacteria in their gastrointestinal tracts without any signs and can transmit it through their feces to people.
  • Can humans get worms from reptiles? Yes, reptiles can transmit parasitic worms to people who handle them or any material contaminated with their fecal material.

Additional care sheets

Notes and sources

Because all reptiles are potential carriers of infectious diseases, such as salmonella, always wash your hands before and after handling your reptile or their habitat contents to help prevent the potential spread of disease.

Pregnant women, children under the age of 5, senior citizens and people with weakened immune systems should contact their physicians before purchasing or caring for reptiles and should consider having a pet other than a reptile.

Go to the Centers for Disease Control at cdc.gov/healthypets for more information about reptiles and disease. 

The information on this care sheet is not a substitute for veterinary care. If you need additional information, contact your veterinarian.