In an initial announcement on September 6, 2012, the Centers For Disease Control And Prevention state that 14 people in six states became ill with Salmonella infections linked to hedgehogs from multiple breeders. These illnesses cover an eight-month period, beginning in late December 2011 through mid-August 2012. Full information can be obtained at the CDC website.
The investigation is ongoing, but the CDC’s advice to consumers hits five key points: wash your hands, practice safe handling, clean up properly, be careful with children and if someone believes they’re ill from contact with hedgehogs, consult a health care provider.
This might sound alarming, but is there really cause for concern?
“I have had hedgehogs for 15 years, and been in contact with probably thousands of hedgehogs and their owners through my rescue work and hedgehog shows,” said Donnasue Graesser, current CFO and CIO of the Hedgehog Welfare Society in Connecticut. “I’ve never once known of a personal case of Salmonella transmission in the larger hedgehog community.”
Z.G. Standing Bear, who operates The Flash and Thelma Memorial Hedgehog Rescue in Colorado, has similar experience. “My volunteers and I have provided long-term care for over 350 hedgehogs for the last 15 years where our resident population averages between 40 and 50 hedgehogs at any one time. None of us have ever experienced any ill effects from doing so.”
The news that hedgehogs can carry Salmonella isn’t new. “We’ve always known that hedgehogs are more likely to carry Salmonella than some other pets people may keep,” said Karen Rosenthal, DVM, MS, associate dean of academic affairs, School of Veterinary Medicine, St. Matthew’s University.
So is there any greater danger in owning a pet hedgehog? “I wouldn’t say there’s a greater danger,” Rosenthal said. “There just may be a greater likelihood with poor hygiene on a human’s part that they could potentially contract Salmonella infection from a hedgehog. But we’ve always known that to be the case.”
Rosenthal said she wouldn’t advise anyone not to get a hedgehog based solely on fear of getting a Salmonella infection.
“What I would say to someone who wants a hedgehog is exactly what I would say to someone who wants a reptile,” Rosenthal said. “All pets potentially can carry things that people can get. We know in hedgehogs they have a propensity to carry Salmonella, which is something that people can easily catch. But it’s not a reason to make a blanket statement that hedgehogs shouldn’t be pets.
“For people with competent immune systems, Salmonella infection is usually not a severe disease,” she added. “If you practice good hygiene, just washing hands and not ingesting anything that was near a hedgehog, you should be fine. Where there is an issue is people with immune systems that are not competent.” Rosenthal said that people with compromised immune systems should probably not have hedgehogs as pets, but she’s not sure any animal is an appropriate pet for someone with a compromised immune system. That’s a decision for the person and their doctor.
So if hedgehogs are known to carry Salmonella, does that mean that all hedgehogs have Salmonella? “The best answer is we don’t know,” Rosenthal said. “We assume that all reptiles carry Salmonella, but with hedgehogs, the answer is we don’t know. If you wanted to be as cautious as we should be, assume they all carry Salmonella.”
Rosenthal said the reason we can’t know for sure whether all hedgehogs carry Salmonella is because testing for it is problematic. She said that a negative test culture doesn’t necessarily mean a hedgehog doesn’t have Salmonella. It just means it wasn’t caught on the culture; it might still be there, hiding in the GI tract.
If you have a hedgehog that looks healthy and acts healthy, just practice good hygiene and you should be fine, Rosenthal said. If your hedgehog seems to be sick, she recommends taking it to a hedgehog-savvy veterinarian to find out what’s wrong. It could be Salmonella infection, but it could also be many other ailments. She warned that Salmonella doesn’t always cause overt signs like profuse, watery diarrhea. “Sometimes a hedgehog just looks sick, isn’t eating or is sort of ‘punky,’” she said.
The CDC estimates that Salmonella causes 1.2 million illnesses each year in the United States. The usual method of transmission is contaminated food, water or contact with infected animals. FoodNet, the CDC’s Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network, estimates that each year 1 million people get Salmonella infection from food, which is the bulk of all Salmonella cases.