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Pet Turtles and Salmonella

Kids and Pets

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Updated April 17, 2013

A baby turtle, which can be a source of Salmonella infections to young children.

A baby turtle, which can be a source of Salmonella infections to young children.

Photo (c) William Fuller
When kids have diarrhea, pediatricians often ask their parents if they have pets at home. Specifically, they may ask if they have reptiles, like pet turtles.

Why?

Turtles and other reptiles can be sources of Salmonella bacteria, especially in infants and younger children. In fact, at least 371 people, including 62 who required hospitalization, have gotten sick after exposure to pet turtles in 41 states in an ongoing Salmonella outbreak since August 2011.

The death in 2007 of a four-week old baby that was traced to Salmonella from a pet turtle also highlights the health risks of having a turtle in their home.

While many parents are aware that you can get Salmonella from chicken, eggs, and, recently, from contaminated peanut butter, they sometimes overlook the risk from pet turtles.

Salmonella Symptoms

Symptoms of Salmonella can include diarrhea (which can be bloody), fever, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal cramps. Symptoms usually last about four to seven days.

How do you get Salmonella from a turtle?

It isn't from a bite or scratch, as with other animal-borne infections. Instead, many turtles have the Salmonella bacteria, which occur naturally in turtles, on their outer skin and shell.

Preventing Salmonella Infections from Pets

The easiest way to avoid getting Salmonella from a turtle is to avoid letting your kids handle turtles, whether it is at home, school, a friend's home, or daycare (although a daycare shouldn't have a pet turtle...).

If they do play with a turtle, be sure to make sure your child washes his hands right away with soap and water.

As with other sources of Salmonella, like uncooked or undercooked chicken and eggs, other family members can become contaminated with Salmonella after touching a turtle or handling a pet turtle's water dish, etc., so even if your young child doesn't play with your family's pet turtle, he could still be at risk of getting contaminated by other family members who do.

What You Need To Know

  • Other reptiles besides turtles, including lizards and snakes, can also carry Salmonella, as can amphibians, such as frogs, toads, newts, and salamanders.

  • Children under age five, and children with immune system problems, are most at risk for Salmonella infections, so you shouldn't have a reptile or amphibian in your home if you have a newborn, infant, toddler, or preschool age child at home.

  • If you do have a pet turtle at home, don't let it roam around freely, which can contaminate all of the surfaces it walks on, walk around your kitchen, or anywhere you prepare food.

  • Don't wash your turtle's water dish or aquarium in your kitchen sink or bathtub, since you might contaminate them with Salmonella if you do.

  • Turtles with Salmonella aren't themselves sick and don't have any symptoms.

  • The sale of baby turtles has been banned in the United States since 1975, but they are increasingly being sold again in recent years.

  • Several reports have documented that free-living turtles do not seem to be carriers of Salmonella, but that is likely because they are living in the wild. If you make a wild turtle a pet and keep it in an aquarium in your home, it may become contaminated with Salmonella too. Kids should wash their hands after handling wild turtles, even if they may not have Salmonella.



Sources:

FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine and the Regulation of Turtles.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Diseases from Reptiles

Outbreaks and recommendations related to reptiles. Reptile-associated Salmonellosis-selected states, 1998-2002; Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 52(49):1206-1209

A severe Salmonella enterica serotype Paratyphi B infection in a child related to a pet turtle, Trachemys scripta elegans. Nagano N - Jpn J Infect Dis - 01-APR-2006; 59(2): 132-4

Absence of detectable Salmonella cloacal shedding in free-living reptiles on admission to the wildlife center of Virginia. Richards JM - J Zoo Wildl Med - 01-DEC-2004; 35(4): 562-3

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