Pet Rodents Linked to Salmonella Outbreak, U.S. Says

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Because children don't always have the best hygiene habits, they're more likely than adults to get salmonella. Symptoms include diarrhea, fever, and stomach pain.

Other animals, such as reptiles, amphibians, kittens, ducks, chicks, and hedgehogs, may carry the bacteria in their intestinal tracts, Swanson says.

In the 1970s the United States banned the sale of small turtles smaller than four inches (ten centimeters) long, he said, because of numerous salmonella outbreaks.

The turtles have reportedly made an illegal comeback in some states.

The CDC investigation linked the sick rodents to 13 retail stores and 7 distributors, located mainly on the East coast and Midwest. However, the source of infected rodents is unknown.

The bacteria may have become widely disseminated within the distributor and pet-store network through the use of unsanitized transport containers.

"Many of the distributors that we looked at—there were reports of these containers and cages going as long as months at a time before being cleaned," Swanson said.

To help prevent outbreaks, investigators suggested that cages be sanitized with bleach and water after each shipment. And, if large numbers of animals appear ill, testing for salmonella should be conducted.

The CDC makes only recommendations. It's up to the pet industry to enforce them voluntarily.

Jennifer Pflugfelder, spokesperson for the retailer PETsMART, says none of its "pocket pets" are ill.

"The pets in all of our stores have a minimal risk of carrying salmonella, and we're fortunate that it hasn't been a problem for us in the past," she said.

The company, which has 700 stores in the United States and Canada, conducts regular inspections of all suppliers' facilities to ensure sanitary pet housing, she said.

To ease customer fears, though, the company started handing out an information sheet on salmonella.

Pflugfelder declined to say if there has been a drop in sales of pocket pets as a result of the outbreak.

This isn't the first time pocket pets have posed a danger. In January the CDC reported two fatal cases of rat-bite fever and linked the disease Tularemia in hamsters to humans for the first time.

Tularemia is typically transmitted when people are handling an infected animal. Possible symptoms include sore throat, diarrhea, and skin ulcers. It's usually treatable with antibiotics.

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