Q&A: Pets, languages, pregnancy complications, and playground accidents
It’s Q&A Friday! Submit questions for future weeks here.
Quick note: We were a little off-schedule this week because we wanted to get the gas-stove writing out early on Wednesday. But if you missed it, you can read all about gas stoves here.
As always, the first question is available to all subscribers (today: choosing a toddler’s pet), and there are a few bonus ones behind the paywall (about teaching kids more than one language, the likelihood of another complicated pregnancy, and playground injuries).
Greetings! I am investigating best pet choices for my soon-to-be 2-year-old. Preferring to avoid the time commitment of the traditional cat/dog, I have been looking into more unusual pets. Lizards like gargoyle geckos and uromastyx and bearded dragons look like really neat, low-maintenance, kid-friendly pets, except they carry salmonella. The internet is worthless in helping me gauge the real danger here. The kid could catch salmonella and get sick enough to die, but has it actually happened? Is it a documented danger or a hypothetical one? What is the comparison to food-borne salmonella illness/death in kids, or other pet risks (dog attacks, cat scratch fever) for that matter? Any help would be absolutely welcome!
I am very sympathetic to this question, because our family has been discussing pets for approximately nine years, pretty much since my older child could talk. After a brief foray with sea monkeys (a.k.a. brine shrimp), we are currently pet-less. I’m working on the pitch that the wild bunnies in the back yare “are our pets”.
My point is, you are not alone in your desire to get an “easier” pet. And these bearded dragon/gecko options do look neat! However, like many animals, they can carry salmonella. Animals can carry this pathogen without symptoms — it’s in their droppings. If you touch their poop and then touch your face, you can get sick. This is why hand-washing is important, but in principle risks remain.
The easiest reliable way to dig into the magnitude of the salmonella risk is with the CDC data. The CDC reports all salmonella outbreaks they are aware of, with sources, here. Right now, there is a salmonella outbreak from pet bearded dragons; this encompasses 23 cases and eight hospitalizations over 15 states, about half of them in kids. The other outbreak of salmonella at the moment is due to alfalfa sprouts.
If you look over the past several years, bearded dragons appear in a lot of outbreaks. The other consistent animals are small pet turtles and backyard poultry. The latter is the source of by far the largest and most frequent outbreaks. Pet hedgehogs appear as a risk a couple of times, and there was one crested gecko outbreak in 2015 (22 reported cases, three hospitalizations).
How worrisome is this?
I would put it in perspective in two ways. First, relative to your baseline salmonella risk from food, this is very small. There are many more cases linked to food in a given year than to any pets or animals. And it’s not always foods you’d expect; in 2018 there were 135 cases and 34 hospitalizations linked to Honey Smacks cereal. Raw meat products are a very common source of infection.
The second perspective-taking relates to your last question. There are risks to more traditional pets too. There are an estimated 400,000 dog bites in children every year. Not all of these are from family pets, but many of them are.
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t get a dog, or shouldn’t eat Honey Smacks. But when we think about small risks, we want to weigh them against risks we take all the time.
If you do go this direction, it’s worth taking some basic precautions: always wash your hands. Don’t snuggle your bearded dragon. Or maybe you want to wait. You could consider some sea monkeys in the meantime?