Experts say exotic pets such as reptiles and monkeys should be discouraged in homes with small children or people with immune system problems, as they pose a health risk.
Paediatrician Dr. Larry Pickering of Emory University Medical School in Atlanta says exotic pets are growing in popularity but while doctors are aware of pet-related hazards, only 5% regularly educate parents and children about such dangers.
Dr. Pickering says in a report for the American Academy of Paediatrics, that this is an attitude that must change because most non-traditional pets pose a risk to the health of young children, and their acquisition and ownership should be discouraged in households with young children.
According to the American Academy of Paediatrics young children should not keep hedgehogs, hamsters, baby chicks, lizards and turtles as pets because of risks for disease.
Dr. Pickering says most reptiles carry salmonella bacteria and the potential problems range from allergies to the spread of infectious diseases.
About 11% of salmonella illnesses in children are thought to originate from contact with lizards, turtles and other reptiles and hamsters can also carry this germ, which can cause severe diarrhea, fever and stomach cramps.
Salmonella also has been found in baby chicks, and young children can get it by kissing or touching the animals and then putting their hands in their mouths.
The report says hedgehogs too can be dangerous because their quills can penetrate skin and have been known to spread a bacteria germ that can cause fever, stomach pain and a rash.
In 2003 an outbreak of monkeypox affected around 20 people in the U.S. midwest, and was eventually traced to imported Gambian pouched rats.
The report says parents need to be educated about the increased risks of exposure to non-traditional pets and animals in public settings for infants and for children under 5, such as petting zoos, and for people with immune system problems.
According to the report the number of exotic pets in the United States has increased by 75% since 1992 and in 2005 alone there were nearly 88,000 mammals, 1.3 million reptiles and 203 million fish imported illegally into the United States.
The report says this illegal trade subverts rules established by regulatory agencies to reduce the introduction of disease and apart from evidence that they can carry dangerous and sometimes potentially deadly germs, exotic pets may be more prone than cats and dogs to bite, scratch or claw - putting children younger than 5 particularly at risk.
Dr. Pickering, the report's lead author is an infectious disease specialist at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Experts say with adequate supervision and precautions such as hand-washing, contact between children and animals is a good thing, but families should wait until children are older before bringing home an exotic pet.
They suggest those who already have such pets should contact their veterinarians about specific risks and possible new homes for the animals - about 4 million U.S. households are thought to have pet reptiles.
The report is published in the October issue of Paediatrics.