Be careful having 'nontraditional pets' in homes with children


Earlier this month, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a statement discouraging "nontraditional pets" in households with young children.

Such animals, including rodents and reptiles, pose a health risk to children younger than 5, the group concluded, and went on to discourage ownership of — and even exposure to — them.

According to the report's lead author, about 11 percent of salmonella cases in children are believed to originate from contact with reptiles such as lizards and turtles. Hamsters and hedgehogs also can harbor the bacteria.

If your menagerie extends beyond dogs, cats and birds — and if there are little humans around — here are some considerations to keep in mind.

Put things in perspective. "If hamsters were a public health hazard, the federal government would outlaw them, just as they did baby turtles," says Marc Morrone of Parrots of the World in Rockville Centre, N.Y., who has wide experience raising all types of animals, including exotic wildlife. (He also makes his living selling the "nontraditional" companions the report criticizes.)

Juvenile turtles are illegal because their small size makes them too, well, bite-size. "That was unfixable," says Morrone of the combination of the turtle's diminutiveness and a toddler's oral tendencies. "But no kid's going to put a hamster in their mouth.

"Maybe somebody did get salmonella from a hedgehog or a hamster," Morrone concedes, but he argues that it does not happen with such regularity that the federal government has seen fit to intervene.

Similarly, the report notes that petting zoos are a source of bacterial contamination to small children. The solution for these establishments has been to make antibacterial soap dispensers available — not send the sheep and chickens packing.

Soap, soap and more soap. If a child touches an animal that could carry salmonella, thoroughly wash his or her hands with soap and warm water. "That goes for whatever animal it is, whether it's an iguana in your house or a goat at a petting zoo," Morrone cautions.

Animal hygiene counts, too. Salmonella exists in the digestive tract of reptiles and certain small mammals, such as hedgehogs. So keeping the animal's environment scrupulously clean is key to keeping bacteria levels down. Don't scrimp on filters and heaters for reptiles, and remember that hedgehogs, in particular, are not naturally confined to small areas, so cleaning a cage out only once a week is not going to cut it.

Put the responsibility where it belongs — on you, the parent. "What child under 5 can be solely responsible for a pet?" asks Morrone rhetorically. The answer, of course, is "none."

Morrone's stock answer to the perennial question "What's the best kind of dog for a child?" is "Whatever kind of dog the child's parent wants to take care of."

Sounds pat, but there is common sense there: When it comes to monitoring animals, the buck stops with Mom and Dad. If parents are incapable or unwilling to supervise their child's interaction with any animal properly, then that household is better off without the animal — and vice versa.

It ain't just hamsters. Owners who choose to feed raw diets to their cats and dogs need to take care that food-preparation and feeding areas are kept scrupulously clean. In some cases, depending on the number of animals and the feeding situation, it may be prudent to sear or cook the meat until the children are old enough to be out of the danger zone.

Remember, too, that raw meat is not the only source of harmful bacteria such as E. coli, salmonella and campylobacter. Pig ears can be crawling with the stuff, and recently there were news reports of a salmonella outbreak in commercial kibble. The answer is likely not to stop feeding such foods and treats because of the possibility of a problem; rather, take appropriate precautions — such as frequent hand washing.



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