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02/06/2013

Can your pet hedgehog make you sick?

African_pygmy_hedgehog_1
Source: www.petwatch.net

Answer: Yes. Yes it can.

In the United States, a salmonella outbreak that began in December 2011 has now infected 20 people, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The patients are from eight states (Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Oregon and Washington), range in age from a few months to 91 years old, and mostly female (55% of patients). The outbreak has been linked to one death in Washington.

What do these people apparently all have in common? Hedgehogs.

Investigators have so far interviewed 15 patients and all but one reported coming into contact with a hedgehog or its environment prior to getting sick. Some people specifically mentioned coming into contact with an African pygmy hedgehog (seen in the image above).

According to the CDC, this strain of Salmonella Typhimurium has rarely been seen before. Investigators are now trying to determine the type and source of hedgehog associated with this outbreak  -- available purchase records show that sickened pet owners bought their hedgehogs from multiple breeders in different states.

Many people take for granted the fact that pets can make people sick (yup, even that cat or dog sleeping in your bed every night).

Hedgehogs can shed salmonella germs in their droppings, which can easily contaminate people who come into contact with them. And according to PetWatch (a really great resource for responsible pet ownership, with pet ratings for source sustainability, invasion threat, animal welfare and human health threats), African pygmy hedgehogs can also carry ringworm or, on the rare occasion, get foot and mouth disease or internal parasites that can harm their human owners.

Cuddling these prickly creatures is already something of an extreme sport. But if you're planning to cuddle one in the near future, maybe wash your hands afterwards? (For at least 20 seconds with soap and water, according to the CDC).

Jennifer Yang is the Toronto Star’s global health reporter. She previously worked as a general assignment reporter and won a NNA in 2011 for her explanatory piece on the Chilean mining disaster. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar

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