There's no denying the appeal of a small turtle to a young child; their miniature features and manageable size are enough to win over a few adults, as well. But this "cute" family pet also can prove to be hazardous. With well over 100 reports of salmonella outbreaks and illnesses linked to small turtles this past summer, parents are being advised against having small turtles as pets. Information about the summer outbreaks released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in August details the potential concerns about having reptiles as pets.
Outbreaks and infections
The CDC reports that 168 people were infected with salmonella poisoning linked to small turtles in summer 2012. Outbreaks were reported in 30 total states, including two cases here in Michigan. In all, 34 people were hospitalized, but there were no deaths.
Children were the most infected with the salmonella strains – 91 percent of infected individuals were age 10 and under. And 94 percent of ill people with turtle exposure specifically reported exposure to small turtles (shell length less than 4 inches). Infants and young kids are more susceptible to getting sick because they're more likely to put their fingers in their mouths after handling these pets – and they may not wash their hands after touching the critters.
Other people at high risk include the elderly and those with lowered natural resistance to infection due to pregnancy, cancer, HIV/AIDS, diabetes and other diseases.
Most people infected with salmonella experience symptoms that are commonly shared with other less-serious illnesses. These include abdominal pain, fever, headaches, vomiting, nausea and diarrhea. They typically appear six to 72 hours after contact, the Food & Drug Administration notes, and may linger as little as a couple of days or as long as a week.
If you own a reptile and anyone in your family experiences these symptoms, it's a red flag that they may have been infected with salmonella and should see a doctor immediately.
Small turtles aren't the only reptiles that carry salmonella. Snakes carry the bacteria, and amphibians like frogs do, as well. One simple way to prevent your child from getting salmonella poisoning is to not buy a small turtle.
Small turtles have been illegal to sell as pets since 1975 by the FDA because of the high health risks associated with them. Still, they remain available to buy at some pet shops, online stores and other vendors, the FDA notes. An effective prevention is to simply not purchase them.
For the common legal reptiles and amphibians, you can take these safety precautions given by the CDC to lessen your chances of becoming ill:
- If you're pregnant, make sure your home is reptile/amphibian-free before your infant is born.
- Don't have reptiles or amphibians in your home if you have kids under age 5 – or if older relatives or people with weak immune systems live with you.
- Don't let these creatures roam freely – especially in food prep areas.
- Never wash aquariums or other supplies in your kitchen sink. Disinfect the place you do clean these habitats/items (i.e., tub, etc.) with bleach.
- After touching a reptile/amphibian – or its housing, food or anything else that comes in contact with it – wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water.
- Remember, salmonella can be on reptiles and amphibians in other places, too – be aware at petting zoos, parks, childcare facilities, etc., too.
- Be mindful of infection symptoms – again, diarrhea, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, fever, headache. If you notice these, call your doctor.