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Don't Touch That Turtle! Surprising Reasons Your Pet Is Dangerous

A new study finds that small turtles are still being sold, despite a long-standing federal ban and the risk of turtle-associated Salmonella infections.

Photograph by Getty Images

In a way, it's fitting that folks have been slow to realize the dangers associated with handling pet turtles, the universal symbol for pokiness. But it's risky, too. A study published this week in the medical journal Pediatrics found that although small pet turtles have been banned for sale since 1975 by the FDA to reduce animal-associated Salmonella infections, they are still being sold-and turtle-associated salmonellosis rates appear to be on the rise once again.

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THE DETAILS: Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta looked at a large outbreak of Salmonella infections occurring between May 2007 and January 2008 and involving 34 states and 107 people. All the victims were interviewed and asked about their exposure to turtles, both direct (i.e., touching a pet turtle) and indirect (such as touching a surface also contacted by a turtle). The media age of the victims was 7 years old, and fully 60 percent reported exposure to turtles during the week before their illness. The vast majority of those turtles were under 4 inches in length-the size turtle banned by the FDA. Conclude the researchers: "Small turtles continue to be sold and continue to pose a health risk."

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WHAT IT MEANS: Small turtles-high in the cute quotient-can pose a big risk. "While Salmonellae are natural intestinal flora for all reptiles, turtles are likely to pose a greater hazard for children than other reptiles," say the study authors, "because turtles are more likely to be given to young children than other reptiles such as snakes, lizards, and iguanas, and they may be handled differently. For example, a young child might treat the turtle like a toy, kiss the turtle, or put it in his or her mouth. In addition, children might have easy access to a turtle's water, which is easily contaminated and can serve to amplify existing Salmonella."

Large turtles, too, carry Salmonella. "There is no evidence that smaller turtles carry more Salmonella than larger turtles," explains lead study author Julie Harris, Ph.D., M.P.H., a medical epidemiologist at the CDC. "The ban on small turtles simply targeted most of the turtles sold as pets. Because of their small size, they were more attractive to consumers"-something Harris is certain wouldn't be the case if consumers were more aware of the risks of turtle-borne Salmonella infections.

"Salmonella is a serious infection and should be treated that way, especially among young children (less than five years old), the elderly, or immuno-compromised people," she says. "The most common symptoms of infection are diarrhea, vomiting, stomach cramps, and fever which usually last about a week. But some patients take months to return to normal bowel habits, and the most at-risk patients-young kids, the elderly, and the immuno-compromised-sometimes experience more serious problems. The bacteria can get into the bloodstream and infect other organs in the body, causing meningitis or organ failure. This type of infection can be fatal."

Here's how to protect yourself and your loved ones from turtle-borne infections:

Resist the urge to buy your child a turtle - any turtle. "All turtles can carry Salmonella, and we have no evidence to suggest that some carry it more or less than other," says Harris. "In fact, we know that even infected turtles don't always shed the bacteria consistently, so a negative test for your turtle doesn't indicate that it's not infected." The CDC warns against turtle ownership for any household that includes children under 5, the elderly, or people who have lowered natural resistance to disease due to pregnancy, cancer, chemotherapy, organ transplants, diabetes, liver problems, or other diseases. A family expecting a child should remove any pet reptile or amphibian from the home before the infant arrives, they say.

Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water immediately after handling turtles or their cages. Do not touch your face, other people, or any surface until your hands are washed.

Inform your child's school. Make sure your child's teacher knows the danger of handling turtles and does not allow one in your child's classroom.

Get informed. For more info about reptiles, Salmonellosis, or other pet-related health questions, check out the CDC's Healthy Pets, Healthy People website at www.cdc.gov/healthypets.

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