When Salmonella outbreaks made headlines in 2018, the source was usually traced back to contaminated food products like raw turkey, pre-cut melon, and breakfast cereal. This time, however, the risk of infection has been linked to a small, spiky critter.

Physical contact with pet hedgehogs — in the form of kissing or snuggling — might be to blame for the latest Salmonella typhimurium outbreak which has affected eleven individuals in eight states so far. The announcement was made by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on January 25.

Colorado, Maine, Mississippi, Nebraska, Texas, and Wyoming have reported one case each. On the other hand, Minnesota has reported two cases while Missouri has reported three cases. While one hospitalization has taken place, no deaths have been reported so far.

Though they look rather prickly, the spines of a hedgehog are not barbed or poisonous. Gently petting them would not hurt as long as the animal is in a relaxed state i.e. not curled up in defense.

However, as public health officials have noted, hedgehogs can still carry the Salmonella bacteria in their droppings even when they seem clean and do not show any sign of illness themselves. 

"Don’t kiss or snuggle hedgehogs, because this can spread Salmonella germs to your face and mouth and make you sick," the CDC warned. "These germs can easily spread to their bodies, habitats, toys, bedding, and anything in the area where they live. People become sick after they touch hedgehogs or anything in their habitats."

As a part of their investigation, the agency found that 10 out of the 11 people infected had been in contact with a pet hedgehog before they fell sick. They could not identify a common supplier of hedgehogs in the outbreak.

Symptoms of the infection usually involve diarrhea, fever, and stomach cramps. In a majority of cases, people recover within a week without needing treatment. But in a few severe instances, people have suffered severe illness and even lost their lives due to associated complications.

Back in 2013, an elderly man in Spokane, Washington died as a result of a similar hedgehog-related outbreak.

Such rare but extreme consequences are more likely to affect young children, older adults, and people who have weak immune system. If you own or happen to be around pet hedgehogs, good hygiene habits are a must.

After handling the animal or cleaning its toys and surroundings, make sure to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water. "Don’t let hedgehogs roam freely in areas where food is prepared or stored, such as kitchens," the CDC advised. As their investigation continues, here are more tips from the website on how to stay safe and healthy around small-sized pets.