Pet Turtles and Salmonella

How Can Kids Get Salmonella From Pets?

Close up of Hispanic boy smiling at turtle
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Is it true that kids can get Salmonella infections from those cute little pet turtles?

Pet Turtles as a Cause of Salmonella Infections

Has your pediatrician ever asked you if you have pets at home, especially reptiles?

Why?

One of the important reasons for this questions is that pet turtles can and do cause Salmonella infections in children, especially children who are age 5 and under.

We've known that kids can get Salmonella bacterial infections from turtles for some time.

  In fact, this is the reason that the sale of baby turtles was banned in the United States in 1975.  The increasing sale of these turtles in recent years, however, has resulted in several outbreaks of Salmonella which have been increasing since 2006.

From 2011 to 2013 there were 8 outbreaks of pet turtle related Salmonella recorded, in which 28% of the children ended up being hospitalized for the infection. In 2015 the Center for Veterinary Medicine investigated two outbreaks of Salmonella related to small turtles - outbreaks in which over 50% of those infected were under the age of 5, and which spanned almost half the states in the country.

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 the home.

Although many parents are aware that you can get Salmonella from undercooked chicken and eggs, handling chickens, ducklings, and other birds, and even contaminated peanut butter, they sometimes overlook the risk from pet turtles.

Salmonella Symptoms

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

Transmission of Salmonella from Turtles

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.

Several older reports have documented that free-living turtles do not seem to be carriers of Salmonella, but that is changing, and it's now known that turtles in the wild may carry Salmonella as well. In addition, if you make a wild turtle a pet and keep it in an aquarium in your home, it may become contaminated with Salmonella even if it was not previously infected. Kids should wash their hands after handling wild turtles, even if they are not as likely to have Salmonella.

Turtles with Salmonella aren't themselves sick and don't have any symptoms.  This is in contrast to what are known as zoonotic diseases - diseases that can infect both animals and humans, and which humans may pick up from animals that are ill.

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...).

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

What You Need to Know if You Have a Pet Turtle?

If you decide to have a pet turtle, or if your child wishes to play with a turtle, consider these things:

  • 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 your child plays with a turtle, make sure he washes his hands right away afterwards with soap and water.
  • Don't let the turtle roam around freely, which can contaminate the surfaces it walks on.  This is extra important in the 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.
  • 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.

Infection Prevention

Unfortunately, Salmonella isn't the only infection your child could contract from food or pets.  Learn about Listeria infections and how they can be prevented. and the signs and symptoms of food poisoning in general.

Sources:

Basler, C., Bottichio, L., Higa, J. et al. Multistate Outbreak of Human Salmonella Poona Infections Associated with Pet Turtle Exposure--United States, 2014. MMWR Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 2015. 64(29):804.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Reports of Selected Salmonella Outbreak Investigations. Updated 03/09/16. http://www.cdc.gov/salmonella/outbreaks.html

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Two Multistate Outbreaks of Human Salmonella Infections Linked to Small Turtles. 10/09/15. http://www.cdc.gov/salmonella/small-turtles-10-15/index.html

Marin, C., Ingresa-Capaccioni, S., Gonzalez-Bodi, S., Marco-Jimenez, F., and S. Vega. Free-living turtles are a reservoir for Salmonella but not for Campylobacter. PLoS One. 2013. 8(8):e72350.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Salmonella and Turtle Safety. Updated 01/05/16. http://www.fda.gov/AnimalVeterinary/GuidanceComplianceEnforcement/ComplianceEnforcement/ucm090573.htm

Walters, M., Simmons, L., Anderson, T. et al. Outbreaks of Salmonellosis From Small Turtles. Pediatrics. 2016. 137(1):1-9.

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