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Pet Turtles: Cute But Contaminated With Salmonella

The little glassy-eyed creatures may look cute and harmless, but small turtles can make people very ill. Turtles commonly carry bacteria called Salmonella on their outer skin and shell surfaces. People can get Salmonella by coming in contact with turtles or their habitats.

Salmonella can cause a serious or even life-threatening infection in people, even though the bacteria do not make turtles 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.

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People infected with Salmonella may have 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.

Who Is at Risk?

  • Anyone can get Salmonella infection, but the risk is highest in
  • infants
  • young children
  • elderly people
  • people with lowered natural resistance to infection due to pregnancy, cancer, HIV/AIDS, diabetes, and other diseases

"All reptiles (turtles, lizards, snakes) and amphibians (frogs, salamanders), are commonly contaminated with Salmonella," says Joseph C. Paige, D.V.M., a Consumer Safety Officer in the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Veterinary Medicine. "But it is the small turtles that most often are put in contact with young children, where consequences of infection are likely to be severe." Because of this health risk, since 1975, FDA has banned the sale of small turtles with a shell less than four inches long.

"Young children are ingenious in constructing ways to infect themselves," says Paige. "They put the small turtles in their mouths or, more often, they touch the turtles or dangle their fingers in the turtle tank water and then put their hands in their mouths. Also, sometimes the tanks and reptile paraphernalia are cleaned in the kitchen sink, and food and eating utensils get cross-contaminated."

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.