Exotic Pets can Seriously Damage your Health

Exotic pets and exotic diseases

Photo by michelleness via Flickr

Each year literally hundreds of millions of legally imported exotic pets flood into the United States and Europe. Many of these animals can be happily hopping, swimming or crawling in the wild in South America, Asia or Africa one day, and find themselves in a cage in some child’s bedroom in say, Ohio, less than a week later. Very often many of these pets are not subject to quarantine or any form of screening and come straight from the bush into our homes. Unfortunately many exotic pet owners are completely ignorant of the risks these animals may pose to their health.

Zoonotic Diseases

A zoonotic disease is one that can jump from animals to humans.  The latest “Swine Flu” outbreak is very good example of a zoonotic disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that these types of diseases account for 75% of all emerging infectious threats. Here is just a small sample of the diseases that exotic pets have passed or could pass on to humans, i.e. your family.

  • Cowpox – In a recent case in France four people were infected by cowpox after being scratched by pet rats that were all bought from the same pet store. In three of the cases surgery was required to treat the disease.(1)
  • Salmonella – The majority of Salmonella infections originate from contaminated food. However it is estimated that 5 % of infections are linked to pets. It is believed that around 90% of reptiles, especially iguanas and turtles, carry Salmonella. The CDC estimates that 70,000 people in the USA are infected with Salmonella by pet reptiles every year. Between 2003 and 2004 many people in ten states all over the USA were infected with a drug-resistant form of the disease which was subsequently linked to pet hamsters and other rodents. (2)
  • EDIT: This part of the article previously dealt with an outbreak of 20 cases of Salmonella allegedly linked to pet hedgehogs. To put this number in perspective, there are 1 to 1.4 million Salmonella  infections in the USA each year, the overwhelming majority of which are caused by eating contaminated food. I have since been informed that the report on which alleged link to pet hedgehogs was based was fatally flawed and was provided with evidence which convinced me that this was indeed the case. I apologise for my error and any alarm it may have caused amongst pet hedgehog owners. I would like to thank  Z. G. Standing Bear of hedgieflash.com for making me aware of the facts behind the story.
  • Psittacosis – According to the CDC there are about 50 confirmed cases of Psittacosis each year in the USA, although they believe there may be many more cases that remain misdiagnosed or unreported. The disease is transmitted by pet birds such as parrots, parakeets, macaws, and cockatiels. Psittacosis can cause severe pneumonia and there have been several fatalities.(4)
  • In New England in 2005 three transplant patients died after receiving organs from a human donor who had been infected with the lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus by a pet hamster. (5)
  • Monkeypox – In 2003 there was an outbreak of Monkeypox in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin. Monkeypox is related to Smallpox and its symptoms include fever and the development of a papular rash. In all cases the people with the disease had been in contact with pet prairie dogs that had all come from the same source. (6)
  • Ringworm – Despite its name ringworm or Tinea is actually a fungal skin infection. One source of ringworm is known to be pet and wild hedgehogs. Over the past few months regular readers will know that this blog has been covering a story where three people were infected with ringworm by two hoglets bought from the same breeder. This story is all the more disturbing as the breeder in question somehow managed to circumvent the UK’s stringent quarantine laws and import several African Pygmy Hedgehogs directly into the country from Germany. She claims that the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) allowed her to “home quarantine” the hedgehogs. It later transpired that the German breeder’s herd was infected with ringworm. While at the breeder’s home this infection was spread from the “German” hedgehogs to the “parents” of the two hoglets that later infected their new owners and a family member. It should be noted that Defra state that “home quarantine” would not be allowed under any circumstances. (7)
  • EDIT: Paragraph removed. See above explanation.

What can you do to reduce the risk of infection?

Many researchers in the field of infectious diseases actively discourage ownership of any kind of exotic pet. However, exotic pet ownership is a fact of life and millions of them share our homes all over the world. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have several web pages that provide some excellent advice about reducing the risk of infection and information about the diseases themselves: HEALTHYPETS.

If you do decide to purchase an exotic pet, buying it from a reputable breeder rather than a pet store or pet distributor, should provide you with more guarantees about the animal’s origins. While the risk of catching some terrible disease from your pet is extremely small, owners must be aware that the risk is real and does exist. If you follow the advice given on the CDC web site that risk is greatly reduced.


  1. Ninove L, Domart Y, Vervel C, Voinot C, Salez N, Raoult D, et al. Cowpox virus transmission from pet rats to humans, France. Emerg Infect Dis. 2009 May; [Epub ahead of print]
  2. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – May 6, 2005 / 54(17);429-433
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.
  4. Margaret Ebrahim and John Solomon Associated Press Article – Nov. 27, 2006
  5. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention June 13, 2003 / 52(23);537-540
  6. Author’s blog

14 Comments on "Exotic Pets can Seriously Damage your Health"

  1. So does that mean that hedgehogs you buy from the pet store can still make you very sick? i get sick easy and i dont want the swine flu,,… so should i still get a hegehog???

  2. Not nessarly. I have rats and I did not get cowpox or anything. If at all possible though, try to find a breeder.

  3. I have a hedgehog, do they need shots or any thin glike that? I got her from a breeder.

  4. Mr. Marquez | 11/08/2011 at 6:13 pm |

    Would a pet store such as PetSmart or PetCo be an acceptable place to buy exotic pets such as hedgehogs?

  5. wow that might be scary

  6. I really want a hedgehog but I also own other animals such as a cat and a bird (cockatiel). I am worried if it would be ok to have one while having all of the other pets? Also the people that I live with have those as well as two dogs. Well the bird is different, but still. And where can I find a reliable place to get one?

  7. You never want to buy a hedgehog from a Pet Store. Usually these come from backyard breeders or mills that are not careful about bloodlines. Inbred hedgehogs can develop Wobbly Hedgehog Syndrome (no I’m not making this up, google it) which is like MS in humans, this is a miserable way to watch a pet slowly die. Hedgehogs should be purchased from a reliable (preferably USDA licensed) breeder. To find a breeder near you check out hedgehogcentral.com. Make sure to research their needs before purchasing.

  8. Wow no thank u

  9. We have a pet hedgehog, and she’s a marvelous pet. WWWe have six kids and nine other different kinds of pets, and they all get along just fine. Our vet (who specializes in exotics) says they don’t need shots. Get a thorough checkup, though, when you bring one home. Be careful, though, because hedgehogs are illegal in some states/cities.

  10. I found a hedgehog in my back yard. It looks old, and is very sick or dying. I found out as much as I could, but nothing really that tell me how to help my new little friend. I have given him/her bread and milk. I was trying to feed it something soft. A apple was to much of a challenge for the poor little hedgehog. It is sleeping in a box with polo-flees blankets. I have kept him/her in the dark to the best of my ability. I am stuck as to what is the next step of action. As off yesterday the only thing I knew about hedgehogs was that they have a heart rate of 300 beats per minute. Is there anything else I can be doing for this little animal. Do bear in mind he/she is wild. I appreciate any advise that can help shed some light on what I need to be doing.

  11. Patricia | 05/09/2013 at 11:56 pm |

    Hedgehogs are lactose intolerant so feeding them milk is not a good idea but cottage cheese is apparently tolerated. They like apples sometimes and broccoli. They eat hedgehog food or if none is available, a low fat, higher protein and enough fiber kitten food. They like mealworms and crickets. They require fresh, cool water. They need heat so polar fleece blankets and warmth (above 23c is required)

  12. I have been doing a lot of research lately because I REALLY want a hedgehog but all this stuff about salmonella has really got me scared, I have read about all the outbreaks since 2011 and I don’t know what to do. I have a little boy and I plan on having another baby sooner then later but I don’t want to risk there health by getting a pet hedgehog! I have found a wonderful breeder and I was really excited but now I don’t know. How likely or what are the chances that if I would get a hedgie that it could give us a diasese like salomonella? It would just be my pet… My children probably wouldn’t bother with it. Advice would be greatly appreciated 🙂

  13. I know this is a very late reply, but I just stumbled upon this article. As far as pet hedgehogs are concerned, these allegations are simply nonsense. The reported CDC “outbreak” was spread over 8 U.S. states and totaled 20 cases. Of those 20 cases, in only two were the hedgehogs tested for salmonella, in the other 18, it was simply noted that a pat hedgehog was “in the house.” Even if a pet hedgehog does contract salmonella, s/he has to get it from somewhere and experienced hedgehog caretakers assert that it is most likely a human that passes the illness to the hedgehog. African hedgehogs (Algerian and Central African) kept as pets in the USA are the only two species of hedgehog that cannot hibernate. Accordingly, they must be kept at a minimum of 70 degrees Fahrenheit at all times. In this confined environment there is really only one way for a pet hedgehog to catch salmonella – from someone or something else in the home. The underpinnings for the CDC research is based upon a patently false article published on the CDC web site in 2005 (the Riley and Chomel piece) and from that article a number of equally preposterous pieces flowed. There is an article published in the International Hedgehog Association (IHA) News (Jan/Feb 2013, Vol. 15, Issue 1) explaining in great detail the preposterous nature of these allegations. A PDF copy is available to anyone who wishes by sending me an email ([email protected]). I operate a nonprofit hedgehog rescue (www.hedgieflash.com) and have cared long-term for nearly 400 hedgehogs over the last 18 years. Best wishes, Z. G. Standing Bear at The Flash and Thelam Memorial Hedgehog Rescue, Inc., in Divide, Colorado USA

  14. yea, uh… i think my hedgehog died of cancer…

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