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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Animal & Veterinary

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Small Turtles Can Cause Illness, FDA Tells Consumers

FDA Veterinarian Newsletter May/June 2005 Volume XX, No III

In July, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an “Alert to Parents” telling them, as well as all consumers, that turtles are frequently contaminated with Salmonella bacteria and can pass the bacteria to anyone handling the turtles, making them sick. Children are especially susceptible.

FDA issued the alert because it has received reports that parents buy baby turtles as pets for their children.

Turtles naturally carry Salmonella bacteria. When the turtles shed the Salmonella, children or others handling the turtles can become infected. Salmonella bacteria cause salmonellosis in humans, which is an infection of the digestive tract. Symptoms include nausea, diarrhea, stomach pain, vomiting, fever, and headache.

Anyone can become infected, but the risk is higher in children, as well as the elderly and individuals with lowered immunity.

The turtles themselves are not affected by Salmonella. And when they are infected, they may not shed it all the time, so a negative Salmonella test does not indicate that a turtle is free of the bacteria.

To protect the public health, FDA enforces a regulation that prohibits the sale as pets of turtles with shells 4 in. long or smaller. The regulation has been in effect since 1975. Anyone convicted of selling the baby turtles can be fined up to $1,000 and sentenced to jail for up to a year for each offense.

The “Alert to Parents” also recommends that parents and anyone who takes care of children should be aware of the Salmonella risk when taking children to petting zoos that contain turtles. Children and others handling the turtles can protect themselves from salmonellosis by carefully washing their hands after handling the turtle or its housing.