Exotic pets: diseases

Exotic pets: diseases

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The term zoonosis refers to diseases that cause bacteria, viruses, parasites or fungi and which are transmitted between humans and animals. Almost two thirds of all human pathogens are transmitted by animals - through physical contact, through food or through invertebrates such as ticks or mosquitoes. Mobility in globalization, climate change and population growth are creating new ways for zoonoses to spread. New diseases of the past ten years like SARS, the severe acute respiratory syndrome were almost all zoonoses.

The exotic zoonoses

Exotic pets can also transmit disease to humans, and laypeople who keep them are mostly unaware of this. For example, research showed that 30 percent of turtles kept in homes and 21 percent of lizards suffered from listeria, bacteria that are also dangerous for humans. Importing reptiles in the UK and the USA have plagued ticks from Africa and Latin America that can transmit pathogens from these continents.

In 2003, dozens of people from the United States contracted monkey pox, an animal epidemic that was rampant in Africa. Hamster rats from The Gambia had brought in smallpox, transferred it to prairie dogs, and then the private owners became infected.

Few people come into direct contact with so-called farm animals today: pork, cattle, sheep, chickens and geese are primarily known to the postmodern city dweller from the freezer in the supermarket. This reduces the risk of becoming infected with such live farm animals compared to our grandparents.

Today there are countless exotic animals in private households that our grandparents knew, if at all, only from the zoo: hundreds of thousands of geckos, agamas, skinks, boas, vipers and even venomous snakes are traded on reptile exchanges; Poison dart frogs from South America, coral fingers from Australia or Californian tiger salamanders join Persian cats and wire-haired dachshunds. African gray parrots and Australian diamond finches, guava macaws and Chinese nightingales join budgerigars and canaries. The pet store is also offering more and more exotic mammals, such as armadillos, mongooses, gluttons and hamster rats.

These wild animals not only have special demands on keeping, they can also transmit specific diseases that laypeople have no idea about.

Diseases of terrarium animals

Terrariums are like tattoos. A generation ago, only scientists and freaks kept lizards, scorpions or frogs in a glass case in their own home; These unusual pets have not only lost the reputation of being "disgusting", they have become a commodity, and an ever-growing market is supplying keepers with offspring and wild catches.

Since there are fully furnished terrariums in a standard pack, including UV lamps, heating, humidifiers, artificial stones, savannah wood and all conceivable food animals from wax moth larvae to crickets, crickets, grasshoppers to nest-young mice and rats, it seems possible for everyone, chameleons, giant snakes or to hold poison dart frogs.

These animals often have a very interesting behavior, shimmer in the most magnificent colors and at the same time give the feeling of bringing a piece of the Amazon rainforest or African savannah into the apartment. Often it is not so much the zoological interest that decides, but the need to have something special or to place a living piece of jewelry in your own four walls.

Unfortunately, some sellers do not convey to customers how demanding most reptiles and amphibians are, and also what diseases they suffer from - diseases that we, unlike those of our long-time companions like dogs and cats, have not developed any defenses against. The temperature, lighting conditions and air humidity have to be right, otherwise the pets will quickly die away.

For the old school reptile freak, knowledge of the lifestyle, habitat, requirements and diseases of his fosterlings was a matter of course. In order to keep the animals, he had to laboriously acquire the specialist knowledge. Today's hobby pet owners who want to stand out from the crowd with a ball python instead of golden hamster often lack this knowledge.

On the one hand, this means that many animals are not kept appropriately and the owners do not notice this: an iguana does not scream when it suffers, a corn snake does not shred the home furnishings if it lacks a “run”. Secondly, laypeople do not recognize the diseases of their animals: if reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates pass away, even non-specialist veterinarians find it difficult to interpret the symptoms; Reptile diseases are a science in themselves.

In addition, zoo keepers observe precise regulations regarding hygiene, separate their work from private life, for example wear special work clothes, while private animal owners generally do not care for exotic animals in a limited area.


Reptiles can transmit bacteria, fungi, viruses and parasites to humans. Ironically, iguanas and turtles carry these pathogens, the most popular terrarium animals among children, which because of their peaceful nature often serve as cuddly toys.

These animals transmit Salmonella to humans and pathogens that ignite the meninges. This was demonstrated by 66 studies over 20 years by two French research institutes. They evaluated 77 infections of children caused by reptiles. Three of the children died, two of them from salmonellosis, one from meningitis.

Probably half of all snakes and lizards are infected with Salmonella. Salmonella can survive for several weeks outside of the carrier, they are transmitted through direct contact, but also through the air or through the hands of the parents. About 14% of all Salmonella infections in the United States are turtles.

Reptiles in terrariums are far more affected by human salmonella than wild animals; such strains are likely to develop through the close contact between humans and reptiles. Hygienically pure and high-quality feed can significantly reduce the risk of salmonella infection.

Campylobacter bacteria are also pathogens that transmit reptiles to humans. They cause nausea, diarrhea, abdominal pain and inflame the stomach. The holders become infected from the drinking water of the reptiles, from open wounds or from scratches such as bites from the infected animals.

Mycobacteria, i.e. M. Avium, M. Marinum and M. Tuberculosis, are also transmitted from reptiles to humans, when cleaning the terrariums, through open wounds or via the respiratory tract. Such mycobacteria are particularly dangerous for people with a weak immune system; they can cause chronic pneumonia.

Tongue worms live in snakes; Their eggs are stored in the saliva and droppings of the reptiles, and people can become infected with them, especially if they clean the terrarium. The larvae hatch from the eggs, nest in the tissue and migrate through the intestines into the lungs, liver and spleen.

Running mites and snake mites also affect humans, ignite the skin and trigger itching.

Terrarium hygiene

Does reptile keeping mean infection? Not at all. Those who travel to India do not necessarily get rabies, and those who visit Uganda do not necessarily catch AIDS.

Adequate hygiene massively reduces the risk of getting an infection. Anyone holding reptiles should wash their hands thoroughly with hot water and soap after each contact with the animal, without putting their fingers in their mouths or rubbing their hands on their clothing. The terrarium and all of its facilities should be disinfected regularly.

Children should be trained in handling terrarium animals, and toddlers should not be supervised without supervision. Reptiles are also not cuddly toys: children should not kiss them, even if the smooth snake skin is so tempting. The "cute" turtles and the fascinating iguanas are not toys and also not bed companions. Anyone who appreciates them will watch them, and whoever strokes them will wash their hands afterwards.

The terrarium should not be in the kitchen or pantry. Wherever we prepare food, pathogens can nest more easily.

When we bathe the reptiles, we use a special container for it, not our shower, bathtub or sink. Our other pets should not come into contact with the reptiles so as not to become infected with them. We should disinfect small wounds caused by scratches or bites immediately.

We should regularly take our animals to a specialist veterinarian who will discover and fight possible pathogens.

With proper care, the risk of contracting disease is low - and proper care should be taken for granted.

Zoo animals in zoo animals

Diseases detected in zoo animals that are transmitted to humans are also of increasing interest to private individuals, because more and more of these classic zoo animals are romping around in civil society today. In particular, the primates that are closely related to us are carriers.


Parapox is found in camel-like, wild and domestic sheep. People rarely become infected with it and then show pustular inflammation on the skin.


In 1990, a monkey keeper infected monkeys with hepatitis A at Wilhema, the Stuttgart Zoo, and after he infected himself in India. Two other monkey keepers also suffered from the disease. The virus spread to four different species of monkeys, including Japanese macaques. All caregivers were vaccinated with gamma globulin and no further infections occurred. In 1991 and 1992 all of the monkeys examined had produced antibodies.

Hepatitis B occurs again and again among primates in zoos; in Stuttgart a gibbon had to be put to sleep because it carried the virus. The origin was an infected gibbon, which the zoo introduced to Vietnam in 1972. It was a monkey variant of the virus, not the human version. So far it has not been clarified whether this “monkey hepatitis” is transmitted to humans.

Papilloma viruses

Papilloma viruses have been detected in bonobos in zoos and are obviously widespread in these great apes. The monkey virus is very closely related or even identical to the human. Bonobo to human infections are therefore likely.

Coxiella burnetti

The so-called Q fever is transmitted primarily from primates to humans. In 1997, for example, both veterinarians at Wilhelma became infected, but fallow deer transmitted the disease and presumably those affected became infected when they raised deer calves by hand.

Capillaria hepatica

The Capillaria hepatica worm infects rodents and is transmitted to humans by them. The eggs remain infectious for years and are stored in the liver. These worms can change the liver tissue so that the person eventually dies. Despite treatment, individual eggs are usually left over.

All described diseases of zoo animals are extremely rarely transmitted to humans in zoos; however pet owners should keep an eye on them.

Ornamental birds

Ornamental birds plague lice, mites and ticks; however, the greatest danger to humans is ornithosis, known as psittacosis or parrot disease in parrots. Ornithosis is a severe illness that resembles flu and attacks the lungs.

Chlamydophila psittaci, the pathogen, looks for birds as a reservoir, for example parrots or pigeons. The birds themselves don't get sick. People usually become infected by breathing in the dust from the bird droppings. Zoo keepers, bird traders or poultry workers are particularly affected, but private pet bird keepers are also at risk.

The disease is also transmitted through direct physical contact, for example when bird keepers ring the animals or determine the sex on the sewer.

If the pathogen is in the body, it infects the lungs via the bloodstream; the lymphocytes multiply and there is atypical pneumonia.

In diagnosis, psittacosis can be confused with typhus, typhus, general sepsis, Q fever and legionnaires' disease. Symptoms include high fever, pain in the forehead and temple, slow heartbeat, severe cough, green diarrhea and pneumonia.

After treatment, the fever lowers after four weeks and the lungs are intact only after months. Without treatment, however, every fifth to second patient dies.

In the fourth week slow fever and leisurely recovery; Complete recovery and normalization of the lungs, especially after severe illnesses, only after many weeks. After surviving the disease, immunity lasting for many years is acquired.

Hygiene for bird keepers

General precautions against pet infections are:

  • Avoid direct physical contact with the animals, and wash your hands after touching the birds or cleaning the equipment.
  • Avoid placing cages and aviaries near the kitchen and food,
  • in the case of itching, stomach upset and other symptoms that cannot be attributed to flu infections, colds, etc., see a doctor,
  • regularly wash the food bowls and drinking vessels with hot water,
  • For aviaries and cages, if possible, do not use materials in which germs and parasites feel comfortable, such as in untreated wood,
  • use germ-free bird sand or heat natural sand before you sprinkle it in the aviary,
  • if the aviary is in the living area, vacuum daily to remove feathers and feces,
  • with large bird populations it is advisable to wear a breathing mask while cleaning the aviary,
  • Change seat branches regularly, clean and disinfect nesting boxes,
  • tell your veterinarian about the species kept and ask about the symptoms of diseases that their fosterlings can transmit,
  • keep the mites, lice and other ectoparasites at hand,
  • if you feed wild plants such as chickweed, wash them thoroughly before giving the green feed to the birds,
  • use extra containers for the garbage from the aviary and do not tip it into the waste bin for the kitchen waste,

In general, the following applies to all pets, whether exotic or traditional: Adequate hygiene prevents most infections - of animals and humans. (Dr. Utz Anhalt)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.


  • Josef Boch, Christian Bauer: Veterinary Parasitology, Georg Thieme Verlag 2006
  • Karl Gabrisch, Peernel Zwart, Hans Aschenbrenner: Diseases of wild animals: exotic and domestic animals in the veterinary practice, Schluetersche, 1987
  • Deutscher Tierschutzbund e.V .: Exotics (accessed: 28.08.2019), tierschutzbund.de
  • Deutscher Tierschutzbund e.V .: Wild animals as pets - exotic animals in private households, as of April 2018, tierschutzbund.de
  • Annika van Roon, Miriam Maas, Daniela Toale, Nedzib Tafro, Joke van der Giessen: Live exotic animals legally and illegally imported via the main Dutch airport and considerations for public health, Plos one, July 2019, journals.plos.org
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases (NCEZID): Zoonotic Diseases, July 2017, cdc.gov

Video: An Introduction to Infectious Diseases. Zoonosis: Germs Leap from Animals to Humans Part 1124 (June 2022).