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Reptiles and child safety

Reptiles are not suitable in a house where there are children under the age of 5.

Reptiles can include:

  • snakes
  • turtles
  • tortoises
  • lizards

Turtles, in particular, can be a danger to children under 5 and to babies. This is because of the infections they can carry.

All reptiles can carry a range of bacteria, viruses, parasites and worms. These can be passed on and can be dangerous to your child.

Make sure that you and your child wash your hands carefully after handling:

  • the pet
  • its cage
  • any surfaces or equipment that may have been in contact with its poo

This is the most important thing you can do to keep your child safe.

Reptiles and health risks to your child

The bacteria and illnesses reptiles could pass on to your child include salmonella and botulism. These are the biggest risks.

Salmonella

Salmonella is caused by bacteria. The illness causes diarrhoea, vomiting, headache, fever and tummy cramps. It can also result in blood infections and dehydration.

Salmonella is a risk with all types of reptiles. Washing your hands reduces the risk.

This means making sure that you and your child wash your hands after handling your pet and:

  • their poo
  • their food
  • their cage
  • any surfaces or equipment that might have been in contact with poo

Read more about pets and Salmonella

Botulism

Botulism is a serious and life-threatening illness. It caused by a germ called Clostridium. It causes paralysis and death. Clostridium is common in reptiles. Babies and children under the age of 1 are particularly vulnerable to botulism.

Symptoms of botulism in babies include:

  • constipation
  • an inability to suck
  • a floppy head
  • floppy muscles
  • weak crying
  • tiredness
  • irritability
  • poor reflexes
  • heavy eyelids and flat, unfocused eyes

Read more about the symptoms of botulism

If you have a reptile and your child has any symptoms of botulism, get urgent medical help. Go to your nearest hospital emergency department (ED) that treats children. Tell the triage, medical and nursing staff that you are a reptile-owner.

Other infections have been linked with keeping reptiles as pets. Most are treatable but some can be very serious.

They include:

  • campylobacteriosis (a bowel infection)
  • leptospirosis (a liver disease)
  • trichinellosis (a disease of muscles, the nervous system and the heart and lungs)

Turtles and health risks to your child

The bacterium that causes botulism is common in aquatic reptiles. Aquatic replies are reptiles that live in water, such as turtles. Exposure to turtles or to turtle feed was the likely cause in at least 2 cases of infant botulism in Ireland.

If you own a turtle, wash your hands immediately after touching:

  • the turtle
  • anything the turtle has touched
  • the turtle's water

Turtle germs are very dangerous to babies and children under the age of 5. If you are around babies or children, wash your hands immediately after touching a turtle or its water. Wash your hands before visiting a home andwhen arriving at a home with children present.

Teach your child to be safe around reptiles

Watch your child at all times around a reptile. Reptiles should not be kept in child-care facilities or creches.

Keep your reptile in its tank or cage. Do not let it loose.

If your child has a weak immune system they should avoid all contact with reptiles.

Do not:

  • eat, drink or smoke while handling reptiles, reptile tanks or reptile equipment
  • allow children to kiss reptiles or share food or drink with them

If a reptile bites or scratches your child

If a reptile bites or scratches your child:

  • wash the wound immediately in warm running water
  • dry it carefully
  • cover with a clean plaster
  • contact your GP for medical advice

Snakebites and your child

Snakebites are not common in Ireland, but they do happen. Pet snakes sometimes bite if they are disturbed, provoked or handled incorrectly.

Some pet snakes are venomous. They can inject venom (toxins produced by the snake) as they bite. A venomous snake may also bite without injecting any venom. This is called a 'dry' bite.

A dry bite may cause:

  • pain or infection where the snake fangs break the skin
  • anxiety

If a snake injects venom through its bite it can cause more serious symptoms, including:

  • nausea (feeling sick)
  • vomiting
  • dizziness, fainting and shock
  • paralysis of the muscles

If a snake bites your child

If you or your child are bitten by a snake, either:

  • go to your nearest emergency department immediately
  • ring 999 or 112 for an ambulance

Your child may be admitted to hospital where the bite can be assessed by:

  • monitoring your child's symptoms, for example, any swelling or redness that appears
  • monitoring your child's heart rate and temperature
  • carrying out blood tests

The blood tests will check the effects of venom on:

  • red and white blood cells
  • platelets
  • haemoglobin

They will also check on different systems of the body, such as your kidneys or muscles.

In more serious snakebite cases, an electrocardiogram (ECG) may be used. This is to monitor your child's heart function.

Feeding reptiles

If you feed your reptile with frozen or live rodents, be aware that these rodents can carry germs. These germs can make you or your child sick.

Wash your hands after handling and preparing this food. Also wash your hands after feeding your reptile. Never allow children to handle this food.

Keeping clean around reptiles

You should assume that your reptile is infected with at least one harmful bacteria.

Wash your hands and your child's hands after contact with reptiles. Do not touch your mouth after handling your reptile or anything it has touched. Wait until you wash your hands carefully. Teach your child to do the same.

Keep reptiles out of any area where food is prepared or eaten. Use hot water to wash any surfaces the reptile has had contact with.

Only wash your reptile in its own basin. Never use sinks or the bath. Waste water and droppings should be disposed of in the toilet or outside drain.

Always wear disposable gloves when cleaning:

  • tanks
  • cages
  • equipment

Wash your hands afterwards.

Use a hot wash to clean clothes that have been in contact with your reptile.

Keeping your reptile healthy

Talk to your vet about feeding and caring for your reptile.

Stress can cause your reptile to shed salmonella and other bacteria.

page last reviewed: 28/06/2019
next review due: 28/06/2022