Experts question study on danger of exotics for children

A report that claims exotic and “nontraditional” pets are not suitable for homes with young children is merely “sensational” science, and what is really needed is better pet-owner education, say some exotic-pet veterinarians. Meanwhile, the state of Delaware is pursuing legislation that would require permits and strict standards for exotic pet owners.

According to the American Pet Products Association, 4.8 million American households have reptiles, six million have small animals (not dogs or cats), and 6.4 million homes own birds. Another 15 million homes keep fish as pets.

The report, in the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, published this month, includes all of the above species in the category of “nontraditional.” The study concludes that: “most nontraditional pets pose a risk to the health of young children, and their acquisition and ownership should be discouraged in households with young children.”

In the paper, the authors discuss the various hazards that nontraditional pets pose to children including Salmonella, Yersinia pseudotuberculosis, Mycobacterium marinum, and rabies. The report says that 6 percent of all sporadic Salmonella infections are from contact with reptiles or amphibians, and fish transmit mycobacterial infections.

“Skin infections also can be acquired from nontraditional pets and include ringworm, monkeypox, orf, cutaneous anthrax, tularemia, erysipeloid, ectoparasites, and endoparasites,” the study says. “Hedgehogs pose a significant risk, because their spines readily penetrate skin and can be the source of M. marinum and Y. pseudotuberculosis infections.”

National media outlets have reported on the study, but not everyone buys into it.

“Most of that stuff is old, over-hashed fear and loathing,” said Jeffrey Jenkins, DVM, DAVBP (Avian), chief officer and veterinarian at the Avian & Exotic Animal Hospital in San Diego, Calif. “I would call it a sensational scientific article.”

Jenkins said while some pets may not be appropriate for young children, he has not seen any cases of children being infected from lizards, hedgehogs or other exotics.

“The world’s a scary place, but it’s not the exotic animals that make it that way,” Jenkins said. “You’re probably more like to get hurt by a dog than a macaw. You’re more like to get hit by lightning than killed by a big snake.”

Angela Duke, DVM, of North Center Animal Hospital in Chicago, said she agrees with the idea that reptiles are not an ideal pet for young children, but the animals are not inherently more dangerous.

“The E. coli and the Salmonella have to do with the fact that kids always stick their hands in their mouths,” Duke said.  “If we put our hands in our mouths as much as kids do we’d be as risk, too.”

She said the key to keeping children safe from zoonoses is having the parents take an active role in the care of the pet.

“There just isn’t any good pet that you can buy a child where you say: ‘This is your pet and I’m not involved,” Duke said.

Delaware debates exotic permits
Delaware Veterinary Medical Association President-elect Morgan Dawkins, DVM, said he did not agree with the report’s conclusion that no exotic pets are suitable for homes with young children.

“It does vary depending on the type of exotic pet,” said Dawkins, who is medical director at Windcrest Animal Hospital Avian and Exotics Veterinary Center in Wilmington, Del. “There are certain exotic pets that can be kept with young children.”

But Dawkins’ home state is taking its own steps to limit the possession and sale of exotics. The Delaware State Department of Agriculture has proposed regulations to enforce the state’s code requiring permits for the sale and ownership of exotic pets.

The proposed legislation would empower the state veterinarian to grant, deny or revoke permits for people wishing to own, sell or display an exotic animal. The regulation defines “exotic” as “a live wild mammal or hybrid of a wild mammal or a live reptile not native to or generally found in Delaware.” However, the proposal fails to define “wild.”

“It does look like something that the VMA would want to take a look at to make sure that the definitions and wording are appropriate,” Dawkins said. “It potentially looks like it could include any non-domestic animal, which would mean anybody with a parakeet or a bearded dragon would have to have double enclosures.”

According to the proposal, prospective exotic pet owners would be required to set up and have proof of primary and secondary “escape-proof” enclosures for the animal, as well as possibly submitting to background checks. Permit applicants are also “required to demonstrate knowledge of enclosure and welfare standards for the species under consideration with the application,” and must have written emergency evacuation plans for the animals.

The individual permits for pet owners would need to be renewed every three years, if the regulations are passed. The Department is accepting public comments until Nov. 1.

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