They may look pretty darn cute, but adopting a tiny turtle carries more risk than you think. A salmonella outbreak linked to the popular pets has sickened at least 37 people, enough for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to issue a special warning yesterday.
Like other reptiles, turtles can carry the bacteria that causes salmonellosis, a potentially-deadly infection with symptoms like diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps. Handling the animals or coming in close contact with their habitats is enough to make people ill, especially little kids. The latest scourge has sent 16 people to the hospital in the past six months and includes 13 states across the country. Of the 37 reported cases, 12 of the patients are 5-years-old or younger.
A study from 2015, published in the journal of Archives of Disease in Childhood, showed that an initial salmonella infection isn’t the only risk; children infected via a reptile could also be more likely to contract more serious bacterial infections, like meningitis or colitis, later on.
The study looked at 175 salmonella cases in children under five, and the numbers speak for themselves. Of the children who were sick with a salmonella infection due to contact with a reptile, 48% were hospitalized (versus 19% of children with other kinds of salmonella infections), and 17% developed more serious infections subsequently (versus 3% of the other group).
The CDC has previously advised against families with young kids keeping reptiles or amphibians as pets, but emphasized yesterday that people should not buy small turtles or accept them as gifts. While all turtles can carry salmonella, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has long banned the sale of pet turtles with shells shorter than 4 inches because they are often linked to the infections. However, people can often still find these tiny turtles at flea markets, street vendors and souvenir shops.
If you do own a turtle (or lizard, snake, frog, salamander or gecko), always wash your hands thoroughly after touching them or their habitat, food and equipment. Young children or adults older than 65 should never handle them, since they have a higher risk of serious illness. Whatever you do, don’t release unwanted pets into the environment. Talk to a reputable pet store or reptile rescue instead, the CDC advises.
And if you still want to get a turtle, consult with a veterinarian about proper care and your family’s expectations and abilities before adopting to one of these (long-lived!) creatures.