Pets for Young Kids: Does Exotic Mean Toxic?

Comments from our readers about whether pets are a danger to children.

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Are hedgehogs really a threat to civilization? Are ferrets baby-killers? Readers responded big-time to my blog yesterday on a new study that warns parents of young children against exotic pets.

Several readers pointed out that I didn't include enough data for readers to figure out the health risk posed by different pets.

BigEd of Vermont wrote: "Why are there no references to the frequency of these problems? Another ersatz news item? Kids have had these pets for years and they have never been the source of concern before." And Will of California wrote: "Where are the numbers? What percentage of prairie dogs harbor tularemia? How many cases of tularemia have been linked to prairie dogs? How does this compare to the overall prevalence and annual incidence of the disease?"

Very true! My apologies for not including specifics the first time around. For the record, tularemia is rare, with about 200 cases reported annually. In 2002, it was spread for the first time from prairie dogs to humans via the exotic pet trade.

Here's the scoop: The pediatricians' academy got worried because in the past few years it has seen more and more families get exotic pets; 4 million families have reptiles, for instance. The concern is that many families acquire the pet first and ask questions later, and pediatricians rarely warn families that pets are a potential health issue. So the pediatricians, the veterinarians, and public health officials at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention got together to recommend that families with children younger than 5 avoid getting nontraditional pets.

Two good reasons for that: Young children's immune systems aren't as developed as those of older kids, and toddlers and preschoolers often put their hands in their mouths. So young kids are much more likely to become very sick from bugs a teenager could shake off. About 11 percent of salmonella illnesses in children are thought to have been caused by contact with reptiles, according to the CDC. To gauge the risk of various pets, check out this listing on the CDC's website.

A fair number of readers, loyally defending their beloved pets, read the recommendation as a blanket condemnation. SDR of New Hampshire wrote: "When I was a kid we had a dog, cats, turtles, fish, gerbils, iguanas, parakeets, frogs, snails, rats...the only animals we ever caught any diseases from were other people's kids!"

But the docs really didn't dis pets overall; they're just saying be cautious in choosing pets when your kids are under 5.

Miguel of California wrote: "I wonder if there's any connection between pets and enhanced immune systems of children. By exposing children to these animals does it help them develop immunities such as the milk maidens and small pox[?]"

Indeed, for the past decade, doctors have been exploring the "hygiene hypothesis," which suggests that exposing children to microbes—such as those from animals—early in life makes them less susceptible to allergies and asthma. The most recent evidence came last week from a Swedish study that found that children who lived in houses with pet birds were less likely to get eczema. The jury's still out on that one.

JamminredheadEd of California summed it all up well when he wrote that, in the end, parents have to use common sense when it comes to pets:

"All of this comes down to having some common sense like buying from reputable breeders / pet stores, washing your hands after handling an animal, and keeping said animal and its home in good, clean condition. If you're not doing that well...hmm...maybe you're a runner-up for the 'Darwin Awards.' "