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January 5, 2015

In early 2014, various media sources reported of an outbreak of an unusual salmonella strain that the CDC linked to the sale of bearded dragons. Sadly, reptiles often receive a poor reputation by sensationalized media coverage that reinforces the undeserved stigma of snakes and lizards. Zoonotic diseases are not limited to reptiles, but reptile-borne disease often garners more attention than avian psittacosis in birds, ringworm in cats and dogs and the rare incidence of meningitis in pet mice.

While the media can sometimes hype a story, we cannot stress enough that reptiles should be handled with common sense sanitation practices as you would with any other pet sold in a pet store, including cats and dogs.

It is absolutely not our intention to scare anyone, much less a would-be retailer or breeder. To the contrary, we instead would like to stress a point concerning these largely preventable diseases that we’ve made throughout our articles: proper education and best practice in your store is absolutely paramount to your success.

Approximately 11 percent of all salmonella cases are linked to animal exposure. Under most circumstances, this comes from the direct handling of reptiles, amphibians, rodents or birds, though indirect contact can cause infection, primarily through food bowls, cages and bedding. Salmonella is transmitted through hand-to-mouth contact, typically when a patient eats tainted materials or touches their eyes or mucus membranes with a hand that carries the bacterium. Children younger than five, pregnant women, the elderly and others persons with weakened immune systems are most at risk for salmonella, as a lessened immune system can lead to advanced complications to a salmonella infection.

Firstly and most importantly, educate your staff on proper handling protocol for reptiles. Staff members should wash their hands with antibacterial soap every time after handling a reptile or reptile cage without fail. On the off-chance that one of your reptiles does carry salmonella externally, proper washing techniques ensure your staff’s safety. Similarly, staff should never wash reptile food and water dishes in sinks other than those designated. Doing so avoids the potential for cross-contamination for staff members.
Strongly consider including hand wash stations and hand sanitizer dispensers directly adjoining to your reptile displays. Including these provides an easy way for your staff to maintain your cleanliness protocols while demonstrating to your customers that you place a high value on hygiene and their safety. Hand sanitizer dispensers have become commonplace enough to be found cheaply at big box or warehouse stores, so cost should be little hindrance to any store owner.

Speaking of your patrons, educate your customers. We’ve addressed in prior articles the importance of providing care sheets for every animal that you sell. However, educating customers means more than simply handing them a sheet; your staff simply must be able to articulate the ins and outs of the care of any given reptile and be able to share that knowledge with your customers in an informative and positive way. Customers with children younger than five should be informed that those children should not handle or touch a pet reptile, except with strict parental supervision, including hand washing immediately after handling.

Be sure to utilize all of the resources at your disposal when educating both your customers and your staff. The Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC) has a great deal of information on proper handling procedures and disease prevention in amongst the “Retailer Resources” on their website http://pijac.org/animal-welfare-and-programs/zoonotic-disease-prevention.

The CDC itself provides a well-cited and thorough guide to dealing with reptile-borne zoonotic disease at the following site: http://www.cdc.gov/features/salmonellafrogturtle. In this age of information, knowledge is your strongest asset.

Above all else, use common sense and advocate common sense for your customers. A little education, a little information, and a little brain power go a long way towards establishing a healthy, disease-free home for reptiles and reptile lovers.

Next month: Legislative risks: changes to laws that you should know about

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