Is your pet going to make you ill?

Story highlights

  • An outbreak of salmonella has sickened 20 people and is linked to pet geckos
  • Pet reptiles often harbor salmonella, though people can reduce their risk of infection by washing their hands after handling these pets
  • Dogs, cats and other popular pets can carry bacteria and parasites that cause human disease

(CNN)Pets give us companionship and affection, but they can also give us diseases. Although it is rare to get sick from our furry and feathered friends, some outbreaks seem to crop up perennially.

Since January of last year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported at least 20 people across the United States came down with salmonella infections linked to contact with crested geckos bought at pet stores. Three people were hospitalized.
    This outbreak is the most recent in a string of salmonella infections associated with pet reptiles. In 2012, people reportedly got salmonella from pet bearded dragons; in 2013, 26 people were infected with the bacterium from their companion hedgehog.
      Just about every type of pet can spread disease, not just reptiles and rare pets. Some infections are household names, such as worms, whereas others, like "parrot fever," are more exotic. The small risks are usually outweighed by the health benefits of living with a pet.
      "There are so many positive qualities of spending time with animals but you need to minimize the risk," said Dr. Peter Rabinowitz, associate professor of environmental and occupational health sciences and global health at the University of Washington. Keeping your pet healthy, by proper hygiene and following your vet's recommendations, can help keep your family healthy, he said.


      What is it about reptiles and salmonella? "[The bacteria] like to live on them," Rabinowitz said. "Many of them just have salmonella on them all the time, and they don't get sick from it," he added. But people can. About 70,000 people get salmonella infections, typically including fever and diarrhea, from reptiles every year in the United States. Most recover within four to seven days, although some infections require hospitalization.
      In 1975, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the sale of small turtles with shells less than 4 inches long. As a 2014 FDA report explained, children like to put small turtles in their mouths. "Young children find very creative ways to infect themselves," said