HEALTHY LIVING
05/26/2011 03:36 pm ET Updated Jul 26, 2011

Strange Science: Kiss A Frog, Catch...Salmonella?

The Centers for Disease Control has been concerned with some pretty unusual things recently (we're looking at you, zombie apocalypse campaign) and now there's this: News that your water frog can give you salmonella.

As of early May, the CDC had identified more than 220 people in 41 states who'd been infected with a strain of salmonella linked to contact with water frogs, particularly those of the African Dwarf variety. Cases have been reported in people as young as one, as well as those nearing 70, though the median age of the infectees is five years old.

And this, the organization cautions, is particularly troublesome: Children under 10 are most susceptible to serious cases of salmonella and some 30 percent of the frog-related cases have resulted in hospitalizations.

Symptoms of salmonella typically include diarrhea, vomiting, fever and cramps. With proper medical attention, they usually clear up within a week.

An investigation into the water frog outbreak began two years ago when CDC officials first became aware of the situation. Investigators eventually tracked all of the cases back to a single African Dwarf frog breeding facility based in California. In late April, that owner voluntarily stopped shipping the frogs.

But the CDC has cautioned that frogs distributed prior to that date could still be in people's homes, which is why it's recommending that water frog owners decontaminate the tanks in which their frogs live -- salmonella can survive in water -- and always, always wash their hands after handling their pets.

Laura Alvey, deputy director of communications for the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Veterinary Medicine, extends that advice to people who come into contact with other reptiles and amphibians, which can also spread salmonella. Or better yet, she suggests avoiding them as pets altogether.

"Don't buy small turtles, other reptiles or amphibians for pets or as gifts," she said in an email.

Which begs the question: Why do people get salmonella from lizards and frogs, but not, say, from Fido the dog?

"Many animal species, including reptiles and amphibians, can carry salmonella in their intestinal tracts without becoming sick from it," Dr. Craig Altier of Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine explained. "The organisms are passed in the feces and can contaminate the environment... when people handle these animals and then fail to wash their hands, they can ingest the organisms through eating or daily activity."

Altier doesn't necessarily think that healthy adults should avoid them as pets, so long as they practice good hygiene, which means not cleaning their cages in the kitchen sink.

"And please," he added, "don't kiss your iguana."