Q: My son is allergic to cats and dogs but desperately wants a pet. His school has an iguana and he wants one, too. Is this a safe pet to have around?
A: According to recent experts, iguanas, like some other reptiles, have been shown to harbor the bacterium called salmonella. This bacterium can cause severe diarrhea, particularly among infants less than one year of age. Epidemiologists from the Centers for Disease Control and the New York State Health Department estimated that iguanas were responsible for at lest 700 cases of salmonella infection in the state in 1993.
In the study, risk factors for infection were allowing the animal to roam freely in the house and preparing food after handling the iguana. Direct contact between the infant and the reptile was not necessary.
What does all this mean for you son? If he does not have a sibling under 2 or 3, salmonella is probably not a major concern. However, we would still advise household members to wash their hands carefully after handling the iguana, especially before eating or preparing food.
It also seems prudent to limit the iguana's meanderings to a terrarium or equivalent home so that surfaces where food is prepared are not inadvertently contaminated. If a younger brother or sister is present, the pet should be kept out of reach and the child should have his or her hands washed carefully after playing with it.
Dr. Wilson is director of general pediatrics at Johns Hopkins Children's Center; Dr. Joffe is director of adolescent medicine.