Exotic Pet Diseases
Many special interest groups that oppose the keeping of 'exotic' pets put on a facade of pretending to care about public health and resort to exaggerating the zoonotic disease threat of non-domesticated pets.
Think about it; the same applies with groups that promote vegetarianism and veganism—the focus is exerted more on eliminating animal-based dietary protein from the human diet to suit an ideological view and less on the actual (many) causes of diet-related chronic illness in the United States. Therefore, you will see more blown up reports about diseases caused by meat than from anything else.
What About Non-Exotic Pets?
On pages that discuss the horrors that exotic pet keeping has wrought in our society, you will see large lists of diseases that are claimed to be spread by exotic pet owners, presenting an illusion that non-exotic pets are 'clean and safe' to own in comparison.
In fact, the subject of disease from domesticated animals is entirely disregarded, because people are comfortable and familiar with these animals, making them more likely to accepted due to this fact alone.
Some studies do back up some of the claims made by organizations like Born Free, The Humane Society of the United States, Animal Defense League, and others. This hub will put the disease threat of exotic pet ownership and other captivity forms into an honest context.
What Is Zoonosis?
A zoonotic disease is an infectious disease that can be transmitted from animals to humans. Therefore unsurprisingly, a common mode of transmission is through the pet trade where humans contact animals.
Many people tend to associate these pet-related illnesses toward the ownership of unusual and exotic pet owning situations; however, all animals harbor and can transmit bacteria, pathogens, viruses, and other organisms to humans that has the potential to cause illness.
In fact, the number one vector of pet related-zoonosis that varies in severity are dogs and cats due to their commonality and presence in public places.
The above video provides an example of the 'reports' that exotic pet owners are faced with because since they already deal with a socially stigmatized lifestyle, they are easy targets of sensationalism and misrepresentation. This preview (and the actual report) failed to specify that:
- While approximately 70% of emerging diseases come from 'wildlife,' these are animals that are existing in the wild (such as the rabies threat in your backyard), while much of the commonly kept exotic pets are captive bred. This figure does not only pertain to exotic pets kept in the United States (these are likely a small fragment of the figure).
- There are already stringent laws existing for importation of 'wild' animals. Those who import animals from other countries must be licensed to do so.
- Exotic pet owners have nothing to do with the 'illegal wildlife parts' trade yet are discussed interchangeably with this to simplify the situation.
- This report included an entirely irrelevant discussion of the Zanesville Massacre just to arouse hatred of 'exotic pet owners'.
A Threat to Human Health?
Much scientific literature exists documenting incidences of pet-initiated zoonotic transfer occurring in domestic situations that are allegedly the result of what is touted as an ‘increasing threat’ to human health. Many of these studies conclude their findings by ‘recommending’ avoidance of exotic pet ownership, and their definition of ‘exotic pet’ appears to include every animal outside of those that are fully domesticated (often, the studies include domesticated farm animals in their analysis on the causation of ‘exotic’ pet zoonosis).
I’ve shuffled through these studies, but one important factor seems to be missing from the conclusion on the prevalence and danger that captive-bred exotic animals supposedly possess: is there a higher percentage of illnesses related to exotic pets, and/or are they more ‘severe’ than that of what is related to the animals that they do not criticize?
Do exotic pets pose such a severe risk to human health and public safety that, in comparison to domesticated pets, the right that people should hold to own pets is invalidated?
What Are Exotic Pets?
The definition of what qualifies as an exotic pet may vary from person to person; however, it is safe to define this group of animals as a vast range of species, from rodents to big cats. This definition may extend beyond non-domesticated animals and often includes animals such as commonly-kept ferrets, chinchillas and small very commonly bred hookbills like cockatiels and parakeets. Many vets consider them to be all animals other than dogs and cats. All have spread zoonotic diseases.
Therefore, it is easy to see why the disease threat of exotic pets, compared to the eternally socially acceptable presence of cats and dogs and other more common pets, may seem high. We are talking about a large number of different animals that include fish, rodents, reptiles, birds, insects, and mammals vs. canines and felines. If any problems are found with any member of this group, 'exotic pets' will collectively be lashed out against.
Your Pet Might Be Considered "Exotic"
Many people make the mistake of believing that the disease potential of exotic pets does not pertain to their harmless pet gecko or guinea pig.
Many people probably also do not realize that these animal rights groups are targeting their animals as an 'exotic pet' as well, falling for the illusion that it is only about pet bears, tigers, and other large dangerous animals. Size does not matter when it comes to disease, and of course, there are probably more occurrences of diseases such as the popularly feared salmonella with these smaller animals than that of animals typically not in mind by those supporting bans of exotic pets on the pretense of their disease threat.
Such an enormous group of species are often lumped together, and the range of possible disease transmission is vast with different levels of severity. According to the literature, all of these pets are a concern, and no official comparisons have been made to dogs, cats, and humans themselves.
Diseases Often Claimed to Be Associated With Exotic Pets
- Salmonella (reptiles and amphibians)
- Tuberculosis (non-human primates)
- Herpes-B virus (macaque monkeys)
- Herpes (monkeys)
- Rabies (all mammals)
- E.Coli (everything)
- Hepatitis B
- Monkey Pox (prarie dogs, Gambian pouched rat)
- Hantavirus (rodents)
- Ebola (primates)
Facts About These Diseases
- Herpes B virus: While the risk exists and should be acknowledged, infections of this viral disease from monkeys to humans are undeniably uncommon. The last transmission of this virus from a captive macaque monkey occurred at a federally-licensed research facility over 15 years ago. 'Old world monkeys' (monkeys from Asia and Africa) in general have higher zoonotic disease threats, so they should be tested for this virus. Humans are far more likely to give the Human herpes type 1 virus to pet monkeys.
- Rabies: Cats are the most common pet animals found with this virus (notably those that are feral, free-roaming or unvaccinated). Exotic pets are rarely found with rabies (the only cases I've located are a few ferrets and one pet raccoon, for more information). Rabies is contracted by outdoor exposure and free-roaming, which exotic pets, unlike many domesticated pets, are not allowed to do without supervision. No one has ever contracted rabies from an exotic pet in the U.S.
- Salmonella: A serious infection in the young and elderly, but not so much in most healthy individuals. Infection is commonly transmitted through improper handling of raw meat and eggs. Only 0.2% of salmonellosis cases have come from reptiles within a given year.
- E-coli (Escherichia coli): This gram-negative bacteria is carried by all warm-blooded animals, including dogs, cats, humans, birds, etc. Infections usually result in temporary intestinal distress.
- Monkey Pox: A small outbreak occurred due to an exotic pet dealer housing an imported Gambian pouched rat in close proximity to prairie dogs (who then also caught the disease), infected 70 pet owners. There were no fatalities as the disease is not as serious in nations with better healthcare, but this resulted in a ban on importing African rodents. Captive-bred animals are still sold, and no other issues have arisen.
- Ebola: A wonderful scare-tactic inclusion to anti-exotic pet websites (really, if it were possible to get this from exotic pets this webpage wouldn't exist because I'd get a new hobby). This disease is transmitted by primates in Africa, notably by the bushmeat trade. No issues with this disease have been recorded to be associated with the exotic pet trade, especially since the virus will rapidly kill its host. Another ridiculous entry to the 'list' of scary diseases you can get that I've witnessed is the bubonic plague (on the AZA's website), for time and space-sake I won't include every nonsensical entry here.
- Hepatitis B: A virus that is mainly a risk to great apes (gorillas, chimps, bonobos) and gibbons. Primates can be screened and vaccinated.
- Hantavirus: This disease is mainly a concern with wild rodents, not captive-bred animals, and these are specific species of mice.
- Tuberculosis: This disease is a threat to mainly old world monkeys (and elephants) but is a debilitating illness that will prove fatal to the animals. TB tests are available and should be given annually for pet primates.
Upon reviewing the research that advocates against exotic pet keeping due to disease transmission, I noticed that much of the zoonotic disease statistics came from petting zoos—that of which hold animals that are not only domesticated, but are common and harmless animals that we often even consume as food.
Domesticated farm animals are not exotic pets. They obviously pose a disease risk, which is why they are not kept in congested environments like cities, but it is rather preposterous that the health conflicts of every animal other than dogs and cats receive so much attention.
However, many studies also point to the health benefits of being raised on farms and around animals. Animals kept in nature centers, zoos, and other educational facilities are not being attacked by the public as being negative for society even though they are included in these cited studies as a major source of the infection incidents.
Advice for Avoiding Zoonotic Disease Infections (ALL Species)
- Do not keep or buy wild-caught or imported warm-blooded animals (unless you are qualified)
- Wash your hands thoroughly after contact with fecal matter or surfaces that may be contaminated with such (at least 20 seconds). This is especially important with reptiles.
- Maintain a clean and organized environment.
- Learn proper disinfection procedures.
- Avoid reptile contact with very young children, sick people, or the elderly (and if they do handle a reptile, follow the 2nd procedure).
- Research the appropriate vaccinations for your pet.
One may think unusual animals host the potential to start pandemics and epidemics to the level of fictional movies such as depicted in the film Contagion.
The best argument made by special interest groups (those that would really just prefer to end the practice of keeping all pets) is that exotic pets may introduce diseases that are unique toward the population and therefore will be harder to deal with. Yet, despite this proposition, There have only been a handful of incidences involving exotic pets and uncommon or potentially serious disease causation.
The small monkey pox outbreak was one of them, and is an example often cited by exotic pet trade detractors. Do these small pets arouse attention from the public as often as less common or more intimidating pets? Special interest groups mainly have a priority in banning non-human primates, big cats, and other uncommon exotic pets because they have ideological objections toward people keeping them in captivity.
The saying that 'one fears what they do not understand' rings exceptionally valid for exotic pets.
Unfortunately for people whose lives are invested in animal care that happens to extend beyond dogs and cats, people have a tendency to single ‘exotic pets’ out. They are a convenient scapegoat because people do not understand why we desire to have them.
Some people look down on the caging of what they perceive as ‘wild’ animals, while others are fearful of reptiles and specific mammals. Snakes have always garnered unwarranted fear from many throughout history. Phobias of snakes (Ophidiophobia) are extremely popular.
Therefore, any one incident regarding an unusual animal will equate to about 50 incidences. If a cat bites someone, it is pathetically uninteresting and un-newsworthy. If a Savannah cat (a popular domesticated/serval hybrid cat) bites someone, it becomes a sensationalized mauling that rattles the cages of the public and sends lawmakers into a frenzy trying to do away with new purchases of any uncommon, non-domesticated animals defined as an ‘exotic’.
With fear and anger toward this group of pet owners due to several misrepresentations of their hobby and lifestyle, it would seem that this should be enough disdainful public sentiment to impose restrictions and bans on this minority group of people.
In contrast to the hype about the danger of exotic pets, many provide therapeutic value and have health benefits for their owners and other people not unlike dogs and cats, which this Animal Planet show used to depict before turning to programs like Fatal Attractions.
- Dogs, Owners May Swap Disease-Causing Oral Bacteria: Study
If you're a pet-owner who kisses your dog on the mouth, you might want to think twice. A new study in the journal Archives of Oral Biology suggests that it's possible for disease-causing oral bacteria to be exchanged between dogs and their owners.
- Exotic Pets' Human Health Risk: Could The Global Pet Trade Import The Next Pandemic?
Part of a series investigating the complex links between human, animal and environmental health: The Infection Loop. Dr. Anthony Pilny had just finished neutering a baby chinchilla when we met under the watchful eyes of his Manhattan clinic's reptili
Find something here to be untrue? Factually incorrect or misrepresented? Please leave a comment and correct me (in a friendly manner) and I will alter it in the article and/or amend my position on the subject.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
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© 2013 Melissa A Smith