Pet Turtles: Cute But Contaminated with Salmonella

Posted on Sep 09, 2013

Amarillo, TX – If you are shopping this weekend and come across a vendor that is selling cute, glassy eyed turtles at roadside stands or flea markets, think twice before taking one of the creatures home as a pet. While they may look cute and harmless, small turtles can make people very ill as they commonly carry bacteria called salmonella on their outer skin and shell surfaces.

While no outbreaks of salmonella related to turtles have been reported locally, vendors selling the types of turtles in question have been reported in Amarillo over the last few weeks. It is important that people are aware that salmonella can cause a serious or even life-threatening infection in people, even though the bacteria do not make reptiles or amphibians sick. An example is the 2007 death of a four-week-old baby in Florida linked to salmonella from a small turtle. The DNA of the salmonella from the turtle matched that from the infant.

People infected with salmonella may experience diarrhea, fever, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting and headache. Symptoms usually appear six to 72 hours after contact with the bacteria and last about two to seven days. Most people recover without treatment, but some get so sick that they need to be treated in a hospital.

Because of the health concerns, officials with the City of Amarillo encourage residents to resist the temptation of taking these turtles home. Many people aren’t aware, but since 1975, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has banned the sale of small turtles with a shell less than four inches long because of the health risks involved.

Who Is at Risk?

Anyone can get salmonella infection, but the risk is highest in infants, young children, elderly people, and people with lowered natural resistance to infection due to pregnancy, cancer, HIV/AIDS, diabetes, and other diseases. Surfaces such as countertops, tabletops, bare floors, and carpeting can also become contaminated with the bacteria if the turtle is allowed to roam on them. The bacteria may survive for a long period of time on these surfaces.

 Advice for Consumers

  • Don’t buy small turtles or other reptiles or amphibians for pets or as gifts.
  • If your family is expecting a child, remove any reptile or amphibian from the home before the infant arrives.
  • Keep reptiles and amphibians out of homes with children under 5 years old, the elderly, or people with weakened immune systems.
  • Do not allow reptiles or amphibians to roam freely through the house, especially in food preparation areas.
  • 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.
  • Always wash hands thoroughly with soap and water after touching any reptile or amphibian, its housing, or anything (for example, food) that comes in contact with the animal or its housing.
  • Be aware that salmonella infection can be caused by contact with reptiles or amphibians in petting zoos, parks, child day care facilities, or other locations.
  • Watch for symptoms of salmonella infection, such as diarrhea, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, fever, and headache. Call your doctor if you, or your family, has any of these symptoms.

 Advice to Pet Owners

  • Do not purchase turtles with a shell length of less than 4 inches in size.
  • Do not give turtles with a shell length of less than 4 inches in size as gifts.
  • Keep turtles out of homes with children younger than 5-years-old, elderly persons, or people with weakened immune systems.
  • Turtles and other reptiles should not be kept in child care centers, schools, or other facilities with children younger than 5-years-old.
  • Contact with other reptiles (snakes and lizards) and amphibians (frogs and toads) can also be a source of human Salmonella infections. Learn more about reducing the risk of illness from turtles and other reptiles and amphibians.

Advice to Pet Store Owners and Others Who Sell or Display Reptiles and Amphibians

  • Pet stores, street vendors, and others should not sell or distribute turtles with shell lengths less than 4 inches. Be aware that the distribution of these small turtles is prohibited by federal law. Distribution of pet turtles includes offering them for adoption or for free with or without the purchase of pet supplies (e.g., turtle tanks, food, etc.). 
  • Pet stores, street vendors, and others who sell or display turtles should provide health-related information to owners and potential purchasers of turtles near the turtle display prior to the point of purchase, not at the cash register.
    • This should include information about the risk of acquiring a Salmonella infection from turtles and water in their habitats (e.g., tanks or aquariums) and instructions for proper cleaning of the turtle habitat.

For more information about small turtles and the related health risks involved, go to http://www.fda.gov/forconsumers/consumerupdates/ucm048151.htm or http://www.cdc.gov/salmonella/small-turtles-03-12/key-resources.html.

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