Ferret Attacks Infant: Are Exotic Animals Safe Pets?

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A couple in Grain Valley, Mo., has each been charged with endangering the welfare of their infant son after their pet ferret ate seven of the child's fingers down to the knuckles.

Ryan and Carrie Waldo both pleaded not guilty to the charges in Jackson County Court Wednesday.

This incident is the most recent in a series of exotic pet attacks that have occurred in the past year. Others include a fatal bear attack in Ohio, a chimpanzee assault in Connecticut and the death of a 2-year old girl in Florida after her family's pet python squeezed her to death.

Keeping exotic animals as pets is legal in nine states; 30 other states impose a few restrictions or require permits, according to The Associated Press.

But some doctors believe exotic pets pose a serious threat to children in the home.

A 2008 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics found that exotic pets may be more prone than cats and dogs to do harm -- including biting, scratching or clawing -- to children under the age of 5.

"Any wild animal not normally considered a domestic pet is a risk," said Dr. Lara Zibners, a pediatrician at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New York, who has treated children's pet wounds in the past.

Zibners said such pets pose two types of danger: infectious and traumatic. Animals that carry infectious diseases, such as ferrets, can pose a risk to children even if they do not come in direct contact with them.

Reptiles, such as pet snakes or iguanas, are known carriers of the bacterial disease salmonella. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 70,000 people in the U.S. get a salmonella infection from contact with reptiles each year.

Other medical practitioners believe that pets of any kind can pose a substantial threat to children.

"What is more of an issue with pets is not the unusual ones," said Dr. Ari Brown, who said that some dogs can do harm to children just as much as exotic pets. According to the CDC, dogs bite more than 4.7 million people each year. Of the 800,000 Americans who seek medical attention for dog bites annually, half of them are children.

Pit bulls lead the pack as the most dangerous dog breed. A 2005 CDC report found that they were responsible for about a third of fatal dog bites in the U.S. over a 20 year period. Rottweilers ranked a close second.

Zibners advised families who own any type of animal to employ strict hand-washing rules, regular vaccinations for the pet and frequent disinfection of toys used around the animal. She also emphasized the importance of adult supervision.

"The best advice is to never leave a youngster alone in a room unsupervised while there is a pet in the home. Period," she said.

Subpoenaed cell phone records indicate that contrary to their claims, Ryan and Carrie Waldo were away from their home when the ferret chewed the child's seven fingers. When he saw what his pet ferret had done to his child, Ryan Waldo hurled the animal against the dishwasher, killing it. The Waldos later called 911, and their 4-month-old was rushed to Children's Mercy Hospital, where his injured fingers were amputated.

According to court documents, the couple had received the exotic pet as a Christmas gift and allowed the ferret to roam freely in their house. Their landlord, John Bandriff, told authorities that the Waldos had previously considered getting rid of the ferret when it had "nipped" the baby. But the family had yet to do so.

Judge Jeffrey Bushur ordered that the couple's infant son and his sibling be removed from their parents' custody pending the outcome of the case. Bond for the couple was set at $5,000 each. Both were released after posting $500 apiece. A preliminary hearing is set for July 13.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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