The Popular Pet That Can Make You Seriously Ill

pet turtle

Story at-a-glance -

  • Turtles can make interesting and enjoyable pets, but there are many misconceptions surrounding their care and suitability as pets
  • Turtles aren’t “easy” pets; they require a varied diet that depends on their specific species as well as a large, temperature-controlled habitat with UVA/UVB light daily
  • Turtles shed salmonella in their feces, and the bacteria can easily contaminate their shell, skin or habitat and make family members sick
  • In some U.S. states, it’s illegal to keep turtles as pets; in others, you need a permit to legally do so
  • Pets like turtles, which are easily and cheaply bred in captivity, flood the pet trade market, resulting in millions of “disposable” lives for sale, many of which are taken from the wild; I strongly discourage buying a turtle from a pet store, flea market, roadside stand or local fair for this reason

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Turtles, with their exotic appearance, calming presence and unique personalities, make popular pets. In the U.S., they’re not nearly as common as dogs and cats, but more than 1.3 million households have a turtle as a pet.1 It’s true that they can make charming housemates, but there are many misconceptions surrounding their care and suitability as pets.

First and foremost, pets like turtles, which are easily and cheaply bred in captivity, flood the pet market, resulting in millions of “disposable” lives for sale. And many other species found in the pet trade are taken from the wild.

I strongly discourage buying a turtle from a pet store, flea market, roadside stand or local fair for this reason; it perpetuates the overbreeding and exploitation of more animals. You also should not consider keeping a turtle you find in the wild, as they’re accustomed to living in their natural environment and won’t do well in captivity.

So if you’ve done your research and believe a turtle is the right pet for you, it’s time to find a turtle rescue, where you can adopt a turtle in need of a home (more on this later). But first, here’s what you should know about these well-loved reptiles.

They’re Not ‘Easy’ Pets

One of the allure of turtles is that they’re often assumed to be less demanding than dogs or cats. While it’s true that turtles won’t beg for your food or chew up your slippers, they’re by no means an “easy” or “starter” pet. Turtles require a varied diet that depends on their specific species, and although commercial turtle foods are available (in canned, pellet, and frozen or free-dried forms), you’ll want to supplement this with fresh vegetables, insects, mealworms and goldfish for omnivorous turtles.

Turtles, tortoises and terrapins are collectively called “chelonians.” Today’s article is just about land turtles, as aquatic turtles, tortoises and terrapins are diverse enough to have their own article.

Most turtles are omnivores, meaning they need both meat (worms, crickets and other bugs) as well as produce. Certain turtles are herbivores and in this case will only eat fruits and vegetables, while others are much more carnivorous. It’s essential to understand your turtle’s natural history, so you can identify what foods are most species-appropriate for your species.

There are over 300 different species of turtles, so their diet and cage habitats will vary substantially, depending on what type of turtle you have. Habitat wise, many turtles can grow to be 12 inches long and need a large aquarium (generally, a 60-gallon tank is a good size habitat for two adult turtles) to live in with a special light that supplies at least 12 hours of UVA/UVB “daylight.”

It will need a warm side (achieved via a heat bulb during the day and black or red light at night) and a cooler side, along with plenty of heated, filtered water for swimming and another space for basking.

You’ll need to keep careful track of the aquarium’s temperature (keeping it in your turtle’s preferred, optimal temperature zone) and clean it often with a safe, but effective disinfectant. Also, be aware that choosing a turtle for a pet is a serious commitment, as they live to be upwards of 25 years old, with some species living to be 50 or more.2

Dave Pauli, a senior adviser for wildlife response and policy for the Humane Society of the United States, said in a news release, “Turtles require more maintenance and space than most people generally assume, and they live for decades, so buyers should be aware that they are a pet that may well outlive them.”3 Further, many turtles do not enjoy being handled, so if you’re looking for a pet to carry and cuddle, a turtle may not be right for you.

They Often Carry Salmonella

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 multistate turtle-associated salmonellosis (TAS) has been on the rise since 2006, with eight outbreaks occurring between 2011 and 2013, sickening 473 people.4

Their propensity for carrying salmonella is the reason why it’s illegal to sell turtles less than 4 inches in size in the U.S.; they’re so small that children are likely to put them in their mouths or at least want to pick them up.

That being said, any size turtle may carry salmonella; it’s not only the small turtles that pose a risk. There’s no way to tell if a turtle is carrying salmonella by looking at it, as it will not appear to be sick. Even a negative salmonella test is not a guarantee of safety, because turtles don’t shed salmonella all the time.

If the test is done while the turtle is not shedding the bacteria, it may come back negative even if the turtle is infected. Because of this risk, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends avoiding having a turtle as a pet in any household that includes the following at-risk populations:5

  • 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

It’s best to assume that your pet turtle is carrying salmonella and take proper precautions to avoid spreading disease. Wash your hands thoroughly after handling your pet or its habitat, and 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, and don’t clean his aquarium in your kitchen sink. This is best done in a bathtub or utility sink that can be thoroughly disinfected afterward.

You May Need a Permit

In some U.S. states, it’s illegal to keep turtles as pets. In others, you need a permit to legally do so. This is largely because many turtle species are endangered, some due to overexploitation by the pet trade. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources explained:6

“Many native, wild-caught turtles are still sold as pets … The collection of wild turtles has caused many species to become endangered, especially when combined with habitat loss, water pollution and predators. Predators such as raccoons eat a large number of turtle eggs each year, and some species do not even breed until they are several years old, meaning that it can take many years for a population to become established.”

Turtles can also be disruptive to local environments when they’re inhumanely released by their owners. You should never release a captive turtle into the wild because not only is it often illegal to do so, but it may fail to survive. And even if it does, it could pose a serious threat to native species. Red-eared sliders, one of the most popular pet turtles, are a classic example.

They’ve been released by owners so many times that they’ve turned into an invasive species that is threatening wild turtle populations worldwide.7 Pet turtles released into the wild can also transmit diseases to native turtle populations. In other states, like Tennessee, it’s illegal to own a pet turtle because they can harbor salmonella, making them a “public health concern.”8 So before you decide that a turtle is the best pet for you, be sure you can legally own one where you live.

How to Find Turtle Rescues

When cared for and handled properly, turtles can make interesting and enjoyable pets. As a bonus, when you adopt a turtle from a rescue organization, you’re helping a creature in need. You can try a national search via PetFinder.com or AdoptaPet.com, which can help you find a turtle in need of a home near you.

Regionally, turtle adoptions are also available via local rescue groups, such as the Mid-Atlantic Turtle & Tortoise Society. Reptiles magazine also has a list of reptile rescues (including turtles) broken up by region. Once you’ve done your research and decided to add a turtle to your life, please start your search for the perfect pet at a turtle rescue organization near you.