Little Pet Shop of Horrors

"Attack of the Tiny Animals" isn't a movie and hasn't hit Hollywood yet, but that fictional horror could be reality at a cute and fuzzy pet store near you.

Pet rodents could be an underrecognized source of the 1.4 million salmonella bacteria infections and 415 related deaths that occur annually in the United States, according to a new government report.

The report is published in today's New England Journal of Medicine. It details the first documented salmonella outbreak associated with pet rodents.

The report refers only to rodents, but experts say the danger doesn't stop at the hamster cages. "Pocket pets" are also a possible problem.

The term "pocket pet" describes any of a number of small mammals kept as pets -- rodents, ferrets, chinchillas or rabbits, for example -- that are by no means intended to live in your pocket but are little enough to fit.

"There have been documented cases of salmonella infections from pet chickens, turtles and reptiles including snakes. In the last couple of years, there has been a lot of news about salmonella in pet turtles," said Lawrence McGill, a diplomat to the American College of Veterinary Pathologists and veterinary pathologist in Salt Lake City.

Most cases of salmonella poisoning from pets go undetected because people don't realize what made them sick, so the danger could be greater than experts realize. To keep perspective, though, "let's keep things simple and straight," said veterinarian Marty Becker, co-author with Gina Spadafori of The New York Times bestseller "Why Do Dogs Drink Out of the Toilet?"

"One out of two children will be bitten by a dog by the age of 12, whereas a very few will contract salmonella," he said.

Pet Stores an Uncommon Source of Infection

In the last couple of weeks, there has been a lot of news about E. coli and salmonella contamination in produce, not in pets.

Most people get salmonella from eating tainted food, but this week government researchers warn that household pets can carry a dangerous and drug-resistant strain of the bacteria.

"We know that many animals can transmit diseases to humans and often think about severe diseases such as rabies or plague," said Gary Thompson, at veterinarian at the West Suburban Animal Clinic in Sylvania, Ohio.

Salmonella is another pet infection we need to be aware of, Thompson said.

Animals have salmonella in their intestinal tracts, and it's found in their droppings. If traces of the bacteria get on the animals' fur or bedding, people can become sick from touching it.

According to the report, cuddly pet store creatures are by no means guaranteed safe, but the dangers are avoidable and, frankly, uncommon.

"You'd probably be more likely to get salmonella from a ham sandwich than a hamster," said Nick Dodman, a professor at the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in North Grafton, Mass.

Unlikely as it is, the risk is real. Infections are sometimes spread from animals to man, like experts fear the H5N1 avian flu virus could someday be. Infections that are transmissible from animal to man are called zoonoses.

Salmonella Outbreak Strikes Rodents, Young Owners

During a multistate salmonella outbreak between December 2003 and September 2004, 28 patients from 19 different states suffered infection from the same strain of salmonella bacteria -- S.Typhimuriam.

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