Prickly pets pose health problem

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Hedgehogs in Washington state and elsewhere are making health officials prickly.

Over the past year, seven cases of salmonella infection in Washington residents, including one death, have been linked to a national outbreak traced to contact with hedgehogs, according to a statement by federal and state agencies on Thursday.

King, Pierce, Thurston, Whitman, Clark, and Spokane counties reported incidents of the illness.

Tests have shown the specific type of the disease matches that found in 20 people from seven other states. The animals can carry salmonella with no outward sign and shed bacteria that can contaminate cages, toys and bedding, as well as household surfaces.

Even without touching a hedgehog, people can be infected by touching objects contaminated by infected hedgehogs.

He and other pet shop owners are not allowed to sell the critters without a permit, similar to federal regulations surrounding the sale of monkeys and other exotic animals, noted Ron Matthews of City Zoo in Walla Walla. “I don’t know of any stores that currently have a permit. We haven’t had them for years.”

Hedgehog seekers might find the animals — which Matthews likens to miniature porcupines — online through private breeders, but he’s not sure why anyone would want to. “I have never felt they made that good of a pet in terms of handling them, but there are people out there …”

The poky pets require a diet consisting almost exclusively of insect larvae and tend to curl into a ball at any approach, he said, adding that hedgehogs were novelty pets at one time.

Washington state Department of Health recommends hedgehog owners wash hands with soap and water after handling the animals and their accoutrements, plus clean any surfaces potentially contaminated by hedgehogs.

As well, visitors to the house should be warned about the potential danger.

Salmonellosis symptoms can include severe diarrhea, fever, chills, abdominal discomfort and occasionally vomiting; symptoms may appear one to three days after exposure. Infections can last from several days to months. The illness can be treated, though most people recover on their own, without medications.

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