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Cross Contamination in a Chelonian Collection - Sharon Chancellor MT

Related web articles:

Quarantine Protocols - Chris Tabaka D.V.M.

Summary and Comparison of Liquid Disinfectants - University of Virginia, Biosafety Program  (will open in new window)

Copyright © 2003 World Chelonian Trust. All rights reserved


As a microbiologist, I see the world differently than the average person. I don't consider myself microphobic at all, but I do think about the ways pathogens can be spread around the home and the collection of chelonians that I keep and I try to think of ways to decrease the risks of cross contamination. What exactly is cross contamination? It is the act of moving a potential pathogen from one area to another, or from one animal to another. There are several ways to cross contaminate, and many ways to avoid it. In this article, I will try to cover the obvious and the not so obvious ways that contagious organisms can be spread around a collection of chelonians, and ways to help reduce the risk of doing so.


It is pretty much common knowledge to wash your hands after handling reptiles. Even so, many people don't realize that washing your hands in between the handling of different groups of of chelonians is equally important. The reason that you want to wash your hands is so you don't become infected with something your tortoises may be carrying (ie: Salmonella), it is for the prevention of disease spreading around your collection that you want to thoroughly wash up between each group.


How many of us reach out and turn on the water with our "unclean" hands and then wash up, only to turn off the water and touching the now contaminated water faucet? I see this one all the time in public bathrooms! One thing you can do is simply leave the water running while you dry your hands off with a paper towel, and then use it to turn off the water. Then you have to disinfect the handle. If you have a faucet that you can turn on and off with your arm, you are in good shape! Just don't touch it with dirty hands!


Doorknobs are another place that contamination can easily be overlooked. You open and close the door with your hands, go in and wash up, go back out touching the doorknob again. If you have to grab the doorknob with dirty hands, make sure you go back and disinfect them before you touch them again going out to work on a different group of animals.


Quarantine is something that is very important when bringing in a new animal. Anywhere from 9 months to a year plus is recommended to give enough time to make sure a new animal is not going to fall ill to something it may have been brewing upon purchase. Simple enclosures that are easy to clean and easy to monitor animal waste, yet are suitable to the animals needs are a must. Animals in quarantine should be the very last animals to be worked on when going about your cleaning and feeding routine. This cuts the chances of spreading disease from the new animals to the established ones even more so than just washing hands. It adds an extra barrier so to speak.


Once animals are out of quarantine and set up in groups of like species, people often tend to relax and let down their guard. You can still spread potential pathogens and parasites from one group of animals to another.  Sharing water bowls and hide boxes, uneaten food is are ways to spread things far and wide, but the simple act of walking in and out of one pen to another is one heck of a way to spread things around and is often overlooked. Buying inexpensive and machine washable shoes, or ones that can be easily cleaned, that are easy to slip in and out of is a great way to get rid of this cross contamination risk. You may think this is overkill, but I know of collections being nearly wiped out due to viral cross contamination in a yard where, though species were separated, the owner walked in and out and all over through the various pens.


On the same hand, the potential for pathogens to be spread is very high when cats and dogs are allowed to wander in and out of pens. Preventing access to pens can be as simple and building a wire mesh fence around the perimeter of your enclosures, or building wire mesh lids for smaller enclosures. Open wire fencing allows sun to shine through, but is unstable enough to discourage cats from climbing over. Wild animals (squirrels, raccoons, opposums, rodents, birds) spread pathogens as well. Building lids where ever you can and securing the perimeter of your yard will help reduce this problem, as well as picking up all uneaten food that would attract the beasties.


What do you do with the water bowl when it is full of feces? Do you dump it on the ground in the pen? Do you dump it on the lawn? One thing that I have done is added a pit in my yard where I dump all waste. I found an area that gets full sun most of the day, is away from traffic areas and animals, and is nowhere near anyplace that I would even think if using for future pens. I dug out the dirt and put in fine pea-gravel. I dump dirty waste water here and pour bleach over the area when I am done. I take the bowls in, one at a time, and clean them out in my laundry room sink. This is better than contaminating my yard, or building up anything nasty in the soil where my animals live. I am also careful NOT to spill soiled water from one pen to another. In places that I would have trouble navigating with a full bowl of dirty water I have also employed a plastic garbage pail, filled it three quarters of the way with pea-gravel and used it to dump water bowls into. The water evaporates off during the hot weather, and of course bleach is added to kill bacteria and parasites. Another thing that could be done is to get a digester. An enzyme digester is available for dog feces, and it is buried in the ground with the opening and lid at ground level. I have not found one that could handle the volume of water that I would have to pour into it, but for small collections it could be rather handy! I would still place it as far away as possible from anywhere you do, or would want to build pens.


Have you ever thought about water being a potential spreader of disease? Well, it can be. Spraying out water bowls or other items can create an aerosol of water and pathogens that can spread out to several areas of your yard. I take all items that need to be washed and disinfected away from the enclosures to be cleaned. Rain and sprinkler systems can also be a problem if you have drainage problems in your yard. Make sure that when you build pens, you take into account the flow of water so that it is not running from one pen into another, carrying pathogens with it.


Last but not least are flies. While it is down right impossible to prevent flies from moving from pen to pen outside, you can do some things to cut down their presence. Simple cleaning is one thing. Picking up turtle and tortoise feces on a regular basis will help keep the fly population down. Cleaning up all uneaten food, especially fruit, daily is also a must. Putting up fly traps, especially those really smelly ones, around your yard will reduce the fly population as well as lure the flies away from things they might find attractive in your chelonian pens. Inside turtle and tortoise buildings, little black soil flies and fruit flies tend to become a problem. Sticky white fly paper place with a light shining on them really helps keep their numbers down. I keep one light on all night, shining on fly paper. I get lots of the little buggers this way. - World Chelonian Trust


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