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Salmonella from Pet Turtles: Just How High is the Risk for Your Kid?

While they don't really cuddle or purr, turtles do have individual personalities and are gaining popularity as family pets. They're cute, and they appeal to busy families because they don't require extended daily care or attention. However, they can pose serious health risks for young children.

Reptiles, such as turtles, snakes and lizards, carry salmonella bacteria, which causes salmonellosis, an infection of the human intestinal tract. Salmonellosis can make life miserable. It usually manifests itself as diarrhea, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, fever and headache. Symptoms usually appear six to 72 hours after contact with the bacteria and last about two to seven days, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Young children are at increased risk for salmonella infection because their immune systems are still developing and because they are more likely to put their fingers or other items into their mouths. Therefore, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that reptiles not be kept in preschools and in homes or daycare centers with children younger than 5. From May 2011 to May 2013, the CDC received reports of 391 turtle-related salmonella illnesses in 40 states and the District of Columbia. Most of the cases were in children. FDA investigations showed that most who became ill had recently been exposed to a pet turtle by touching it, feeding it, cleaning its habitat or changing the water in its tank.

Reducing the risk of salmonella

Even when owners try to keep their reptiles and habitats clean, salmonella bacteria can be on the turtle, in its cage or on any surface the pet has crawled across. Anything that turtles touch should be considered contaminated. Keep in mind that reptiles shedding salmonella appear perfectly healthy, so it is important to wash your hands with soap and water immediately after touching turtles or anything in the areas where they live and roam. That includes water from containers or aquariums. The best prevention is using good hygiene and common sense.

Here are some turtle do's and don'ts from the CDC:

Do
  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water immediately after touching a pet turtle or anything in the areas where it lives and roams. Use hand sanitizer if soap is not available. Adults should help young children wash their hands carefully.
  • Keep turtles out of homes with children younger than 5 or people with weakened immune systems.
  • Clean your turtle's habitat and its contents outside. Wear disposable gloves while cleaning, and do not dump water in sinks used for food preparation or for obtaining drinking water. To prevent cross-contamination, your turtle should be bathed in a small plastic tub or bin that is dedicated for that use only. If you are only able to use your bathtub, it should be thoroughly sanitized afterward with bleach.
  • Wash any clothing the turtle touches.
  • Thoroughly clean with soap or a disinfectant any surfaces that have been in contact with your turtle.
Don't
  • Don't let children younger than 5, the elderly or people with weakened immune systems handle or touch your turtle or anything in the area where it lives and roams, including water from containers or aquariums.
  • Don't touch your mouth after handling your turtle, and don't eat or drink around the animal.
  • Don't let your turtle roam freely throughout the house or in areas where food is prepared, served or stored.
  • Don't bathe your turtle or clean its habitat in your kitchen sink, bathroom sink or bathtub.

Are pet turtles right for your family?

If you don't have young children, turtles can be great pets. The two most common types of pet turtles are the red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) and the Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina). Here are a few pros and cons for turtle ownership:

Pros
  • They are quiet pets that don't require a lot of attention or time.
  • They are unique and can be beautiful.
  • They have a long life span (20 to 40 years in captivity).
  • Food is easily available for common species.
Cons
  • They require large aquariums and a significant initial investment in aquarium accessories, such as UV lighting, basking lamp, thermostat, water heater and a filtration system.
  • They shed salmonella.
  • Aquariums require frequent deep cleaning and changing of water.
  • They have a long life span (20 to 40 years in captivity).
  • Reptiles are susceptible to stress, bacteria and illness.
  • They require a specialized vet.
  • Some do not like to be handled and will become aggressive.
  • It can be hard to keep their environment correctly stable for them to thrive.

Check out more tips on how to keep your kids safe when interacting with your pets and how to choose the right pet for your family on Parenting's Pets page.

Erin Topp, CPDT-KA, is the owner of Topp Canine Solutions, LLC in Ames, Iowa and the voice behind The Five Dog Blog. She is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and an active member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers. Erin is also an AKC approved Canine Good Citizen Evaluator, president of the Cyclone Country Kennel Club and superintendent of the local 4H dog project. To help other dogs get a second chance, she volunteers for the Animal Rescue League of Iowa and is a foster home for Illinois Doberman Rescue Plus. When not helping clients to enjoy easier lives with their canine companions, Erin competes in obedience and lure coursing with her own four dogs.

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