TORONTO – Infectious disease expert Scott Weese says he’d never consider keeping reptiles as pets.
“I’ve got kids and young kids and reptiles aren’t a safe combination because of the salmonella risk,” he says.
Weese, a University of Guelph professor who studies bacterial infections in humans and animals, says there are a large number of salmonella cases each year in Canada — especially in kids —that are traced back to contact with reptiles.
Keeping reptiles away from children is a “pretty standard” recommendation, he says.
Yet a quick glance at the websites of dozens of Canadian companies offering exotic animals for children’s birthday parties, daycare centres, corporate events or nursing homes for just a few hundred dollars suggests those warnings have failed to reach the public.
Many of the sites feature photos of children, even toddlers, with long snakes wrapped around their heads and tiny bodies, with parents often smiling in the background.
Experts and animal welfare advocates say they believe there are hundreds of thousands of exotic animals in Canada, the vast majority of them reptiles.
From the human health standpoint, the two big issues with exotic animals are infectious disease and injury, says Weese. But he adds that researchers don’t know much about a lot of these species.
“I can tell you pretty well what a dog or a cat or a rabbit is likely to carry, what the risk is and what we can do to decrease that risk,” he says. “But the farther you get from these typical, domestic species, the less we know and the more you can get surprised.”
Weese points to a 2003 outbreak of monkeypox in the U.S., which saw 47 confirmed and probable cases of infections. The infectious disease is closely related to smallpox and can result in a rash, muscle pain and fever.
The U.S. outbreak, which was traced back to large rodents from Ghana imported to Texas, was the first time human monkeypox was reported outside of Africa.
“These are healthy animals that get shipped to the U.S. legally and then they get mixed with prairie dogs, and prairie dogs are very susceptible to monkeypox we know now — we didn’t know then — and the prairie dogs were infecting people,” he says.
“So just an example … the less we know about a species and the more we bring them out of their normal environment, they can get into some really completely unpredictable risks.”
Experts say humans are not equipped to care for exotics, which are wild animals taken from their natural habitat or bred in captivity and not native to the country.
“Quite often when people have animals, they have them as individuals,” says Doug Whiteside, a veterinarian at the Calgary Zoo.
But many exotic animals kept as pets — like large cats and primates — are pack animals who shouldn’t be kept in isolation, he says. When they’re on their own, he adds, they suffer from poor mental and social health, which can result in physical problems.
“They’ll start to pull their hair out, or they’ll start to bite themselves. In other species, we might see over-grooming, where they’ll lick themselves until they have lesions on their skin.”
In addition to what he calls “self-injurious behaviour,” Whiteside says large exotic pets have historically been subject to “inappropriate” surgeries, such as declawing wild cats like lions and tigers, and blunting the teeth of monkeys.
Such surgeries are not only cruel in that they impede the animals’ nature, he says, but they also lead to lasting health effects.
Whiteside adds that even if an exotic pet owner tries to do everything right, they may have trouble finding qualified veterinary care. To become a zoo animal veterinarian, he says, he had to do an extra four years of training after vet school.
Evan Mavromatis, a veterinarian at the Links Road Animal & Bird Clinic in Toronto who treats mostly exotic animals, says their biggest problem is nutritional.
“Domestic cats have cat food. These companies have spent hundreds of hours with nutritionists putting together all the nutritional needs of these animals … into a kibble,” he says.
But for large, exotic cats, there isn’t a pre-packaged solution to mealtime, he says.
“A lot of people who have them as pets don’t do a lot of research before they get them — because it looks cool to have a tiger or a panther,” Mavromatis says. “And then they feed them steak that you buy from the grocery store, but the steak alone doesn’t have all the nutritional requirements.”
Some common issues are calcium and vitamin deficiencies, says Mavromatis, who is himself an exotic animal owner. He mostly keeps reptiles: a corn snake and “14 or 15 lizards.”
Reptiles are trickier to care for, Mavromatis says, because they have specific environmental needs. They have to be kept in a warm environment under a UV light, and their tank needs to be big enough to accommodate them but not so big as to overwhelm them.
But there are some exotic animals that even Mavromatis would avoid. He says he only treats monkeys if it’s an emergency, because they carry diseases that can be transmitted to humans.
Montreal veterinarian Jean Gauvin says that more than a decade ago, a woman who was using a macaque monkey as a service animal caught Herpes B virus. The disease is common in monkeys, and often doesn’t present symptoms in the animals. But according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, when it’s transmitted to humans, it can cause severe brain damage and death.
Gauvin says the woman who caught Herpes B from her monkey survived, but became very ill.
Whiteside says the transmission of diseases between humans and exotics is a two-way street.
Marmoset monkeys in particular are vulnerable to a strain of herpes that humans carry — Herpes simplex — which sometimes presents itself as a cold sore, he says.
If herpes-infected monkey owners kiss their pets, Whiteside says, the monkeys could become ill. In marmosets, the infection is fatal.
Yvonne Whitfield, a program director at Public Health Ontario, was involved in investigating a salmonella outbreak that saw 107 infections in Canada — mostly in Ontario — from 2012 to 2014.
Whitfield says the outbreak was eventually linked to snakes and the mice that are used to feed them.
Pet snakes need to eat mice fairly regularly to meet their nutritional needs, and reptile owners will commonly feed their pets mice that have been frozen alive and then thawed.
People were thawing the mice in coffee mugs and kitchen pots that they would later use to drink beverages or heat up dinner, Whitfield says. That’s how the infection was spreading.
Now, she says, Public Health Ontario is trying to educate people on how to safely keep pets.
“We focus on not sleeping with the animals in their beds. We focus on not kissing or sticking the animals in their mouths, and that’s some of the behaviours we see with these creatures.”
But for kids younger than five, the elderly and people with weaker immune systems, infection can spread through indirect contact — in other words, they can get sick just from being in the same environment as the animal.
Mavromatis says that in addition to illnesses and infection, there’s also the danger of injury in keeping large, non-domesticated animals.
In 2013, two brothers — aged four and six — were killed by a 4.3-metre-long African rock python that escaped a glass tank in an apartment in Campbellton, N.B.
In another incident in 2010, a 66-year-old Southwold, Ont., man who had five wild cats on his property, including a lion and a cougar, was mauled to death by his 295-kilogram tiger. And in 2007, a 32-year-old woman from Bridge Lake, B.C., bled to death after she was attacked by her boyfriend’s pet Siberian tiger.
“They don’t mean to hurt you, but with the size and the brute strength that they have, it’s an unpredictable encounter,” Mavromatis said.
And sometimes, he added, they do mean to hurt you.
It’s their instinct.
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version had an incorrect name for the Links Road Animal & Bird Clinic.