Warning: Young children should not keep hedgehogs as pets – or hamsters, baby chicks, lizards and turtles, for that matter – because of risks for disease.
That's according to the nation's leading pediatricians' group in a new report about dangers from exotic animals.
Besides evidence that they can carry dangerous and sometimes potentially deadly germs, exotic pets may be more prone than cats and dogs to bite, scratch or claw – putting children younger than 5 particularly at risk, the report says.
Young children are vulnerable because of developing immune systems, plus they often put their hands in their mouths.
That means families with children younger than 5 should avoid owning “nontraditional” pets. Also, kids that young should avoid contact with these animals in petting zoos or other public places, according to the report from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The report appears in the October edition of the group's medical journal, Pediatrics.
“Many parents clearly don't understand the risks from various infections” these animals often carry, said Dr. Larry Pickering, the report's lead author and an infectious disease specialist at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For example, about 11 percent of salmonella illnesses in children are thought to stem from contact with lizards, turtles and other reptiles, Pickering said. Hamsters also can carry this germ, which can cause severe diarrhea, fever and stomach cramps.
Salmonella also has been found in baby chicks, and young children can get it by kissing or touching the animals and then putting their hands in their mouths, he said.
Hedgehogs can be dangerous because their quills can penetrate skin and have been known to spread bacteria that can cause fever, stomach pain and a rash, the report said.
With supervision and precautions like hand-washing, contact between children and animals “is a good thing,” Bocchini said. But families should wait until children are older before bringing home an exotic pet, he said.
Those who already have these pets should contact their veterinarians about specific risks and possible new homes for the animals, he said.