Exotic pets diseases medical practice

Exotic pets: These diseases can occur. Image: Bene – fotolia

The term zoonosis refers to diseases caused by bacteria, viruses, parasites or fungi that are transmitted between humans and animals. Almost two-thirds of all human pathogens are transmitted by animals – through physical contact, through food or mediated by invertebrates such as ticks or mosquitoes. Mobility in globalization, climate change and population growth pave new ways for zoonoses to spread. New diseases in the last decade like SARS, severe acute respiratory syndrome were almost all zoonotic diseases.

The zoonoses of the exotics

Exotic pets can also transmit diseases to humans, and lay people who keep such animals are usually not aware of this. Research showed, for example, that 30 percent of turtles kept in homes and 21 percent of lizards suffered from listeria, bacteria that are also dangerous to humans. Import reptiles in the U.K. and U.S. plagued ticks from Africa and Latin America that can carry pathogens from those continents.

Exotic pets: these diseases can occur. (Image: Bene/fotolia.com)

In 2003, dozens of people from the U.S. contracted monkeypox, an animal disease rampant in Africa. Hamster rats from the Gambia brought in smallpox, transmitted it to prairie dogs, which then infected private owners.

Very few people today come into direct contact with so-called farm animals: Pigs, cattle, sheep, chickens and geese are familiar to the postmodern city dweller primarily from the freezer in the supermarket. This reduces the risk of getting infected on such live farm animals compared to our grandparents.

Today in private households for it live countless exotic animals that our grandparents knew, if at all, only from the zoo: Hundreds of thousands of geckos, agamas, skinks, boas, vipers and even poisonous snakes are traded at reptile fairs; poison dart frogs from South America, coral fingers from Australia or Californian tiger salamanders join Persian cats and rough-haired dachshunds. African gray parrots and Australian diamond finches, macaws from Guiana and Chinese nightingales join budgerigars and canaries. The pet trade also offers more and more exotic mammals, such as armadillos, mongooses, gliding booties or hamster rats.

Not only do these wild animals have special husbandry requirements, they can also carry specific diseases that lay people have no idea about.

Diseases of terrarium animals

With terrariums it is like with tattoos. A generation ago, only scientists and freaks kept lizards, scorpions or frogs in a glass case in their homes; these unusual pets have not only lost their reputation for being "disgusting," they have become a mass commodity, and an ever-expanding market supplies keepers with offspring and wild-caught animals.

Since fully equipped terrariums are available as a standard package, including UV lamps, heaters, humidifiers, artificial stones, savannah wood, and every imaginable food animal from wax moth larvae to crickets, crickets, migratory grasshoppers, nesting mice and rats, it seems possible for anyone to keep chameleons, giant snakes, or poison dart frogs.

These animals often have a very interesting behavior, shimmer in the most magnificent colors and at the same time give the feeling of bringing a piece of Amazon rainforest or African savannah into the home. Often it is not so much the zoological interest that decides, but the need to have something special, or to put a living piece of jewelry in one's own four walls.

Unfortunately, some sellers do not inform their customers how demanding most reptiles and amphibians are, and also what diseases they suffer from – diseases to which we, unlike those of our long-time companions such as dogs and cats, have not developed any defenses. Temperature, light conditions and humidity must be right, otherwise the animals will die quickly.

The old-school reptile enthusiast took for granted the knowledge of the habits, habitat, requirements and diseases of his fosterlings. In order to keep the animals, he had to painstakingly acquire the expertise. However, today's hobby pet owners, who want to stand out from the crowd with a king python instead of a golden hamster, often lack this knowledge.

On the one hand, this leads to the fact that many animals are not kept in a species-appropriate manner, and the owners do not notice this: An iguana does not scream when it suffers, a corn snake does not tear up the furnishings of the apartment when it lacks "exercise". Secondly, laymen do not recognize the diseases of their animals: if reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates die, even non-specialized veterinarians have difficulty interpreting the symptoms; reptile diseases are a science in themselves.

In addition, zoo keepers observe strict hygiene regulations and separate their work from their private lives, for example, they wear special work clothes, while private keepers do not usually keep exotic animals in a separate area.


Reptiles can transmit bacteria, fungi, viruses and parasites to humans. Of all things, iguanas and turtles carry these pathogens, i.e. the most popular terrarium animals among children, which often serve as cuddly toys due to their peacefulness.

These animals transmit salmonella to humans and pathogens that inflame the meninges. This has been proven by 66 studies over 20 years by two French research institutes. They evaluated 77 infections of children caused by reptiles. Three of the children died, two of them from salmonellosis, one from meningitis. Probably half of all snakes. Lizards are infected with Salmonella. Salmonella can survive for several weeks outside the carrier; it is transmitted by direct contact, but also through the air or through parents' hands. Approximately 14% of all salmonella infections in the USA occur in turtles.

Reptiles in terrariums are far more affected by salmonella, which is dangerous to humans, than wild animals; such strains probably develop through close contact between humans and reptiles. Hygienically pure and high quality food can significantly reduce the risk of salmonella infection.

Campylobacter bacteria are also pathogens that reptiles transmit to humans. They cause nausea, diarrhea, abdominal pain and inflame the stomach. Keepers become infected through the drinking water of the reptiles, on open wounds or through scratches like bites of the infected animals.

Mycobacteria, i.e. M. Avium, M. Marinum and M. Tuberculosis is also transmitted from reptiles to humans, when cleaning the terrrarium, through open wounds or through the respiratory tract. Such mycobacteria are especially dangerous for people with weak immune systems, in whom they can cause chronic pneumonia.

Tongue worms live in snakes; their eggs are stored in the reptiles' saliva and feces, and humans can become infected through them, especially when they clean the terrarium. Eggs hatch into larvae, which nest in ties and travel through intestines to lungs, liver and spleen.

Mites and snake mites also infest humans, inflame the skin and cause itching.

Terrarium hygiene

Does keeping reptiles automatically mean infection?? Not at all. Traveling to India does not necessarily give you rabies, and visiting Uganda does not necessarily give you AIDS.

Proper hygiene greatly reduces the risk of contracting an infection. Those who keep reptiles should wash their hands thoroughly with hot water and soap after every contact with the animal, without putting their fingers in their mouths or rubbing their hands on their clothes beforehand. The terrarium and all its equipment should be disinfected regularly.

Children should be trained to handle terrarium animals, and young children should not care for them without supervision. Reptiles are also not cuddly animals: children should not kiss them, no matter how tempting the smooth snake skin may be. The "cute" turtles and the fascinating iguanas are not toys and also not bedfellows. Whoever appreciates them, observes them, and whoever caresses them, washes his hands afterwards.

The terrarium should not be in the kitchen or pantry. Wherever we prepare food, pathogens can settle more easily.

exotic pets diseases medical practice

Keeping a terrarium clean is extremely important to avoid illnesses. Photo: Vladimir Zadvinskii – fotolia

When we bathe the reptiles, we take a special vessel for it, so not our shower, bathtub or sink. Our other pets should not come into contact with the reptiles, so that they do not become infected. Small wounds from scratches or bites should be disinfected immediately.

We should regularly take our animals to a specialized veterinarian, who will detect and combat possible pathogens.

If kept competently, the risk of contracting diseases is low – and keeping them competently should be a matter of course.

Zoonoses in zoo animals

Diseases found in zoo animals that are transmitted to humans are also of increasing interest to private individuals, as more and more of these classic zoo animals are now found in civil society. Carriers are in particular the primates closely related to us.


Parapox is found in camelids, wild and domestic sheep. Humans rarely get infected with them. Then show pustule-like inflammations on the skin.


In 1990, a monkey keeper infected monkeys with hepatitis A at Wilhema, Stuttgart Zoo, and after he himself had been infected in India. Two other monkey keepers also suffered from the disease. The virus spread to four different species of monkeys, including Japanese macaques. All keepers were vaccinated with gamma globulin and no further infections occurred. In 1991 and 1992, all monkeys examined had formed antibodies.

Hepatitis B occurs repeatedly among primates in zoos; in Stuttgart a gibbon had to be euthanized because it was carrying the virus. The origin was in an infected gibbon that the zoo introduced to Vietnam in 1972. These were monkey variants of the virus, not the human version. So far, it is unclear whether this "monkey hepatitis" is transmitted to humans. Papillomaviruses could be detected in bonobos kept in zoos. Are apparently widespread among these apes. The monkey virus is very closely related or even identical to the human one. Bonobo-to-human infections are therefore probable.

Coxiella burnetti

The so-called Q fever transmits mainly from primates to humans. In 1997, for example, both veterinarians at Wilhelma became infected, but fallow deer transmitted the disease and probably became infected when they hand-reared deer calves. The worm Capillaria hepatica infects rodents. Is transmitted from them to humans. The eggs remain infectious for years. lodges in the liver. These worms can alter the liver tie in such a way that the affected person eventually dies. Despite treatment, single eggs usually remain.

All of the diseases of zoo animals described are extremely rarely transmitted to humans, even in zoos; however, pet owners should keep an eye on them.

Pet birds

Ornamental birds are plagued by lice, mites, and ticks; however, the greatest threat to humans is ornithosis, known as psittacosis or parrot fever in parrots. Ornithosis is a severe disease that resembles influenza and attacks the lungs.

Chlamydophila psittaci, the pathogen, seeks out birds, for example, parrots or pigeons, as reservoirs. The birds themselves do not become sick. Humans usually become infected by inhaling dust from bird droppings. Especially zoo keepers, bird dealers or workers in poultry keeping are affected, but also private ornamental bird keepers expose themselves to risk.

The disease is also transmitted through direct body contact, for example when bird keepers ring the animals or determine the sex from the cloaca.

Once the pathogen is in the body, it infects the lungs via the bloodstream; lymphocytes multiply, and atypical pneumonia results.

In diagnosis psittacosis can be confused with thyphoid fever, typhus, general sepsis, Q fever and Legionnaires' disease. Sypmtoms include high fever, pain in forehead and temple, slow heartbeat, severe cough, green diarrhea and pneumonia.

With treatment, fever decreases after four weeks, and lungs take months to recover. Without treatment, however, one in five to two of the sick die.

In the fourth week, slow decline of fever and leisurely recovery; complete recovery and normalization of the lungs especially after severe courses of the disease only after many weeks. After surviving the disease, immunity is acquired that lasts for many years.

Hygiene for bird owners

General precautions against infection of pet birds are:

– avoid direct physical contact with the birds if possible, and wash your hands after touching the birds or cleaning the facilities, – do not place cages and aviaries near the kitchen and food if possible, – in case of itching, stomach sickness and other symptoms not related to flu infections, colds etc. regularly wash the feeding bowls and drinking vessels with hot water, – for aviaries and cages, if possible, do not use materials in which germs and parasites feel at home, such as in untreated wood, – use germ-free bird sand or heat natural sand before sprinkling it in the aviary, – if the aviary is in the living area, vacuum daily, to remove feathers and droppings, – if the bird population is large, it is advisable to wear a respiratory mask while cleaning the aviary, – change perching branches regularly, clean and disinfect nesting boxes, – inform your veterinarian about the species kept and ask about the symptoms of diseases that may be transmitted by your fosterlings, – keep the remedies against mites, lice and other ectoparasites at hand, – use a special mask when cleaning the aviary if you feed wild plants like chickweed, wash them thoroughly before giving the green food to the birds, – use extra containers for the waste from the aviary and do not dump it in the waste bin for the kitchen leftovers,

The general rule for all pets, whether exotic or time-honored, is that proper hygiene prevents most infections – of both animals and people. (Dr. Utz Anhalt)

– Josef Boch, Christian Bauer: Veterinarmedizinische Parasitologie, Georg Thieme Verlag 2006 – Karl Gabrisch, Peernel Zwart, Hans Aschenbrenner: Krankheiten der Wildtiere: exotische und heimische Tiere in der Tierarztpraxis, Schlutersche, 1987 – Deutscher Tierschutzbund e.V.: Exotics (call-off: 28.08.2019), tierschutzbund.en – German Animal Welfare Association e.V.: Wild animals as pets – exotics in private households, as of April 2018, tierschutzbund.en – Annika van Roon, Miriam Maas, Daniela Toale, Nedzib Tafro, Joke van der Giessen: Live exotic animals legally and illegally imported via the main Dutch airport and considerations for public health, Plos one, July 2019, journals.plos.org – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases (NCEZID): Zoonotic Diseases, July 2017, cdc. This article contains only general references. May not be used for self-diagnosis or self-treatment. It cannot replace a visit to the doctor.

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