U.S. health officials warned pet-owners against kissing and snuggling their hedgehogs as a Salmonella outbreak linked to contact with the animals spread to 17 states.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said 27 people had been infected with a strain of Salmonella typhimurium, including two people who were hospitalized.
Forty-two percent of the patients are children age 12 or younger.
This particular Salmonella strain was identified in samples collected from 10 hedgehogs in Minnesota, where five cases have been reported. Other states with reported cases include California, Colorado, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington and Wyoming.
The outbreak is similar to a past outbreak of Salmonella linked to pet hedgehogs in 2013, said Colin Basler, an epidemiologist with CDC’s outbreak response branch.
“This particular strain of Salmonella seems to be widespread in hedgehogs,” he told Reuters Health.
No new cases have been identified since May 31, Basler said.
Salmonella infections usually spread through food contaminated with animal feces.
The CDC says people coming in contact with hedgehogs can stay healthy by always washing their hands thoroughly with soap after touching the animals, and cleaning their pet’s toys and supplies outside of the house.
Such items should be cleaned far away from places where food is stored or served, the CDC added. Pet hedgehogs should also not be allowed to roam freely around these areas.
Indeed, hedgehogs are rather messy and often run through their feces, says veterinarian Krista Keller, an associate professor at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine.
Keller advises clients to wash their hands immediately after handling their hedgehog.
“This recommendation becomes very important when it comes to small children in the household that may stick objects into their mouth,” Keller added.
Kissing or hugging hedgehogs can spread Salmonella germs to the face, the CDC warns.
Christina Hannigan, public relations co-chair of the Hedgehog Welfare Society, a volunteer organization that rescues and rehabilitates hedgehogs bred as pets, told Reuters Health by phone she has handled “well over a hundred hedgehogs,” including one that was a known Salmonella carrier.
“I never got sick, because all you have to do is what (the CDC says) – wash your hands,” added Hannigan, whose group also provides educational resources to pet owners.
Domestication of hedgehogs is a relatively new phenomenon. The most commonly bred species is the African pygmy hedgehog. According to Hannigan, they were first bred in the U.S. as pets roughly 40 years ago.
Hannigan says caring for these pocket-sized mammals is different than for other animals because they are used to hotter climates and have specific dietary requirements.
Veterinarians can play an important role in ensuring that a hedgehog is healthy, Keller said.
“Ensuring that your hedgehog is healthy is an important way of protecting your family from Salmonella,” Keller told Reuters Health by email.
Children under age 5, adults over 65 and people with health problems or a weakened immune system are most vulnerable to serious illness from Salmonella, and their families should consider adopting a different pet, the CDC says.