I don’t know if any of you remember a news story that came out around the middle of September about the two men in Seattle who were caught trying to smuggle some kind of monkeys into the country in their underwear. Most of the time stories like that may get a raised eyebrow out of me … but that’s about it. However, that story came out around the same time we at the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries began working with the State Health Department to investigate mice that may have been exposed to the disease of Lymphocytic choriomeningitis, transmittable to humans. Those issues made me stop and think about how different the world of veterinary medicine is than when I was a kid, or even when I graduated from veterinary school for that matter. The exotic animal industry continues to present new challenges and new and emerging diseases we must remain vigilant against.
When I was a kid and even a young adult, I would have probably argued that the only animals God intended for us to have as pets were dogs, cats, goldfish and possibly canaries. I would have probably told you I could find that somewhere in the Bible. But I have to concede, I can’t find anything in scripture forbidding us from having a pet green iguana, a pet monkey or even a pet snake. Exotic pets are becoming so common nowadays, there are news stories nearly every week about someone’s python escaping, or someone having several exotic pets confiscated because of some problem, or somebody’s monkey eating her friend’s face, or some exotic animal disease that has spread to humans.
I am a firm believer in individual freedom and I guess it’s OK for you to have whatever you want as a pet to a certain extent. But I would advise you to become familiar with diseases that may be an added bonus that come with the pet at no extra cost, at least at the time of purchase. The Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries Animal Industries section, our colleagues at USDA Veterinary Services, the Alabama Department of Public Health, and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources are frequently tasked to deal with diseases that spread from animals, often exotic pets, to people.
An article, published in a veterinary journal back in the 1990s, indicated a large percentage of iguanas harbor Salmonella bacteria. It is common for rabbits, ferrets and guinea pigs to carry the ringworm organism and hedgehogs to carry sarcoptic mange, both are skin diseases that can spread to humans. Psitticine birds can carry an organism, Clymidia psittaci, causing Psitticosis in humans. Those may not be very exotic, but they fit into my category of non-dog and non-cat pets. Many of the diseases contractible from your exotic pet may only result in a skin rash or a little diarrhea; the elderly, the very young, and those with compromised immune systems may end up with much more severe bouts with these diseases.
Many of the diseases associated with exotic pets never make the headlines. However, a few come to mind that have really caused some excitement since I have been State Veterinarian. Many of you may remember the outbreak of monkeypox a few years ago. Largely associated with giant Gambian rats, the monkeypox outbreak made the news every night for a while. There was only a small group of people affected with sores on their skin. In Africa, however, one to 10 percent of the people infected with the monkeypox virus never lived to tell about it. The disease, also associated with prairie dogs, was taken very seriously by the Centers for Disease Control and state health departments. Our agriculture law enforcement folks were called on to escort a shipment of Gambian rats as they traveled through Alabama on their way to the CDC in Atlanta.
There was an incident that occurred in Ohio about a year ago that has really brought the ownership of exotic animals center stage. You may remember the man who owned a large number of lions, tigers, wolves and monkeys. The man decided, for some reason, to take his own life. Unfortunately, one of the last things on his to do list was to set the animals free. It turned out that several of the animals were destroyed by county deputies after causing considerable angst in the community. That event, along with some other high-profile events centered on exotic animals, has drawn not only interest in state governments but also from the federal government. The sheriff from the Ohio county where the episode took place was scheduled to appear before Congress in October as they ponder how to deal with such issues. There are people on both sides of the issue who have strong opinions as to whether there should be additional regulations on the exotic industry.
Here in Alabama, in a proactive move, we are reminding people of an existing law stating anyone who "owns," keeps or cares for animals for which there is no approved rabies vaccine must register the animal with the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries. This law has been around for a while, but, over the years, it hasn’t really been enforced. However, in light of the fact that the federal government is looking at how to get their arms around the exotic animal issue, we want to be able to say, "This is what we are doing in Alabama." We are in the process of getting folks educated concerning this law and how to comply. So, if you have a lion, tiger, monkey, Tasmanian devil, giant Gambian rat, or any kind of other exotics (but not snakes, geckos or other reptiles), they should be registered in our database.
If you have questions feel free to call our office and I will be happy to discuss this issue with you. The number is 334-240-7253.Dr. Tony Frazier is the State Veterinarian for Alabama.