March 10, 2005 -- Tiny pet turtles may be cute, but they're also potentially dangerous.
CDC officials have issued a new warning about small pet turtles after they have been linked to at least six recent cases of salmonella infection in Wisconsin and Wyoming.
Salmonella infection associated with small pet turtles was a major public health problem in the 1970s. This prompted the FDA to ban the commercial sale of turtles with a shell of less than 4 inches.
But a resurgence of illegal small turtle sales in souvenir and pet shops has prompted new concerns. A description of the investigation into these six recent cases appears in the March 11 issue of the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
Salmonella Cases Caused by Pet Turtles
Three children and one of their mothers became ill due to salmonella infection after purchasing a small pet turtle from souvenir shops in Wisconsin in the summer of 2004. One of the children, a 10-year-old boy, was hospitalized due to severe illness.
Two other cases of salmonella infection in Wyoming have also been linked to exposure to a small pet turtle. In one case the woman had no direct contact with the turtle but the turtle's bowl was cleaned in the family kitchen sink, which became contaminated with the bacteria.
Salmonella infections usually cause a mild, self-resolving illness with symptoms such as diarrhea, fever, and vomiting. But infection with the bacteria may also lead to more severe illnesses, such as bloodstream infection and meningitis in infants or people with weakened immune systems.
Turtles are a well-known source of salmonella infection in humans, and more than 90% of turtles carry the bacteria in their feces. Researchers say contact with reptiles and amphibians account for about 74,000 cases of salmonella infection each year in the U.S.
CDC officials say the recent salmonella infection cases highlight the need to control the illegal sale and distribution of small pet turtles. Additional illegal small turtle sales have been reported in South Carolina and Texas.
Officials say many sellers were aware of the FDA ban but attempted to skirt the law by giving the small turtles away with the purchase of a turtle habitat or claiming they were being distributed for educational purposes only.
Although the FDA ban does not apply to sales to educational institutes or organizations, having small turtles as family pets is illegal, whether the turtle was purchased, won in a raffle, or given away with another purchase.