By Dr. Becker
Many kids are drawn to turtles as pets, and when the turtles are tiny (i.e., less than 4 inches long — the kind you may see for sale at flea markets), they can be irresistible. Unfortunately, this means young children often handle them, kiss them and may even try to put them in their mouths, a no-no not only for the turtle, but also the child because turtles carry salmonella bacteria.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) actually banned the sale of turtles with shells that measure 4 inches long or less in 1975, which is said to have prevented an estimated 100,000 cases of salmonellosis in children annually.1 However, a multi-state outbreak of salmonella involving 37 cases, 13 states and 16 hospitalizations has once again been blamed on the popular pets.2
The illnesses started between the dates of March 1, 2017 and August 3, 2017. Thirty-two percent of the illnesses occurred in children 5 years or younger. In trying to determine the probable cause, 45 percent of those affected said they had contact with turtles or their environments, such as water from their habitat, prior to getting sick. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), six of those who fell ill said they bought their turtle at a flea market or from a street vendor, or received the turtle as a gift.
This brings up another concerning aspect of this problem: reptiles, amphibians and other small animals that are easily and cheaply bred in captivity and flood the pet market, resulting in millions of "disposable" lives for sale. I strongly discourage buying animals from roadside stands, flea markets or local fairs, as it perpetuates the overbreeding and exploitation of more animals.
Salmonella Isolated From Turtles Genetically Related to Salmonella in People
The CDC genetically sequenced salmonella isolated from turtles sold by a street vendor in 2015. "The Salmonella Agbeni isolated from ill people in this outbreak is closely related genetically to the Salmonella Agbeni isolates from turtles. This close genetic relationship means that people in this outbreak are more likely to share a common source of infection," the CDC noted.3
Many people are unaware that turtles shed salmonella in their feces, and the bacteria can easily contaminate their shell, skin or habitat. Research published in the journal Pediatrics in 2016 revealed the number of multi-state turtle-associated salmonellosis (TAS) has been on the rise since 2006, with eight outbreaks occurring between 2011 and 2013, sickening 473 people.4
As with the current outbreak, no deaths were reported, but 28 percent were hospitalized and most cases occurred in children (with more than half of the cases occurring in children under 5).
It should be noted that it's not only small turtles that pose this risk; turtles of any size can carry and transmit salmonella bacteria. The small-size turtles often get highlighted, however, because if you have one in a home with small children, they're inevitably going to want to pick it up. In addition to turtles, lizards, snakes, frogs, salamanders and newts may also carry salmonella. The bacteria are naturally occurring in these reptiles and amphibians, and even a negative salmonella test is not a guarantee of safety.
In fact, turtles don't shed salmonella all the time, so it's possible to get a negative salmonella test even if the turtle is infected. Further, a turtle that carries salmonella will not appear sick, so it's best to assume that any reptile or amphibian you come across is a carrier. It's estimated that reptiles, including turtles, transmit 74,000 cases of salmonellosis to Americans each year.5 Because of this risk, the CDC recommends avoiding having a turtle as a pet in any household that includes the following at-risk populations:6
- Children under 5
- The elderly
- People with lowered natural resistance to disease due to pregnancy, cancer, chemotherapy, organ transplants, diabetes, liver problems or other diseases
Safety Tips for Turtle Owners
Reptiles can make wonderful pets, but precaution is called for to avoid possible disease transmission. You should always wash your hands thoroughly after handling your pet or its habitat. But also be aware that anything your pet turtle touches also becomes a potential source of contamination.
For this reason, don't let him wander freely around your home, especially in areas where you eat or prepare food. Have designated reptile exercise areas that you can easily sanitize when the pet is out of its cage. The U.S. FDA further recommends:7
- Don't buy small turtles (under 4 inches) or other reptiles or amphibians for pets or as gifts.
- Be aware that salmonella infection can be caused by contact with reptiles or amphibians in petting zoos, parks, childcare facilities or other locations
- If your family is expecting a child, isolate the reptile or amphibian to a specific area of the home
- Do not clean aquariums or other supplies in the kitchen sink. Use bleach to disinfect a tub or other place where reptile or amphibian habitats are cleaned.
- Watch for symptoms of salmonella infection, such as diarrhea, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, fever and headache
In addition, if you opt to have amphibians or reptiles as pets, make sure you choose ethically raised, captive-bred animals or even better, adopt or rescue one in need — and be sure you've done your research on how to provide the appropriate environmental enrichment.
Herps (reptiles and amphibians) require specialized lighting and heating systems, as well as species-appropriate nutrition (many requiring live bugs and insects as a food source) so make sure to research your prospective new pet prior to adopting one to make sure you are willing and able to care for it properly over the course of its lifetime.