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Hedgehogs and Salmonella - CDC Call 11/19/20

Hedgehogs, salmonella, and the CDC... what you need to know.

On November 19th 2020, a call was held to discuss the current state of the salmonella outbreak linked to pet hedgehogs. This was held by the US and Canada Pet Industry Joint Advisory Councils (PIJAC) in conjunction with the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), USDA (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service), and PHAC (Public Health Agency Canada).

Dr. Michelle Waltenburg is the primary point of contact for the CDC investigation, and answered questions on the call - more on that below.

We know salmonella is everywhere, and some in the community have felt that epidemiologists have wrongfully linked certain cases to hedgehogs. Below I've outlined the key points of the call and provided some context for what it means for those of us sharing our homes with pet hedgehogs.

What do we know about the outbreak?

  1. The USA and Canada have identified a specific strain of salmonella in common with cases related to exposure to hedgehogs. This outbreak strain is highly related to outbreaks in 2012 and 2019 related to hedgehogs. So far, this strain has only been identified in hedgehogs and humans.
  2. Over 4 months this year, there were 41 cases, 8 of which were hospitalized. 
  3. While the outbreak is linked to exposure to pet hedgehogs, a common source hasn't been identified. We don't know if it arose out of a particular facility, but we do know it's spread across the USA and Canada.

Here is the official Investigation Notice from the CDC with up-to-date information.

Some Key Questions

Was there something in common with the hedgehogs' diets which could be the culprit?
From Dr. Waltenburg: Specific diet is known for 13 patients, most report feeding commercial cat food. None known fed raw diets.

How do hedgehogs get this strain of salmonella?
Primarily from contact with other hedgehogs / surfaces other hedgehogs have been on. Extensive sales of hedgehogs between breeding facilities likely circulated the strain to many small and large breeders alike, and subsequently on to pet owners.

Are the cases linked to USDA licensed (or not licensed) facilities?
Majority of cases have been linked to USDA licensed facilities.

How many people who owned hedgehogs and got sick also own other pets?
There were lots of other animal contacts, but the point is that the strain they got sick with has been specifically linked to hedgehogs, and not to other mammals, reptiles or poultry.

Can you eradicate this strain of salmonella?
Per the CDC, breeders should follow up with their exotics vet to develop a preventative control program and monitoring process. AKA... just try to minimize spread.

How does this specific outbreak compare to salmonella cases as a whole across the USA?

I asked this, and here is Dr. Colin Basler's (paraphrased) reply - he is a veterinary epidemiologist for the CDC:

For every outbreak of salmonella, it is important to identify the source so that we can reduce illnesses. There is another outbreak related to animal exposure (backyard poultry) which is up to 1600 cases, obviously lots more than 41 cases this time for hedgehogs. But, in terms of zoonotic salmonella outbreaks, this is a mid-size to large investigation. It's important to keep in mind that not every person who gets sick will actually end up tested and identified as past of the outbreak. For every case reported, there are likely 29-30 cases that go unreported. That makes this a significant outbreak, especially considering that this is the third time we've seen an outbreak linked to hedgehogs. It's important to provide as much information as possible to the hedgehog-owning community so that we can minimize spread and illness.

That is the most important takeaway here. The fact of the matter is that a specific strain has been identified related to hedgehogs, it's not a huge deal, but still needs monitored and we all need to do our part to minimize the spread of zoonotic disease. Salmonella can make some people seriously ill and no one wants that!

So... what do I need to do?

It's easy! Just wash your hands, and practice good husbandry! Hedgehogs tend to step in their feces (either in their enclosure or on their wheel) and transfer bacteria to your hands when held. This is no one's fault, that's just how life is. Keeping your hedgehog's wheel and cage clean can minimize the amount of bacteria is transferred to you, and will make your hedgie happy too. And always make sure children who handle hedgehogs (or their cage furnishings) wash their hands as well.

We don't need to be scared of salmonella, just conscious that it can be there, and we don't want to ingest it or spread it to other people or animals.