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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Animal & Veterinary

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CVM Reminds Consumers: Small Turtles Carry Risks of Salmonellosis

by Joseph Paige, D.V.M., MPH, Office of Surveillance and Compliance; Jon F. Scheid, Editor
FDA Veterinarian Newsletter 2006 Volume XVII, No IV

In the United States, reports of human salmonellosis from pet turtles continue to be received, despite the fact that pet turtles less than 4 in. in length were banned in 1975. The resurgence in illegal sales of these pet turtles and subsequent consumer complaint reports have again raised concerns about the risks to public health from handling these turtles.

Researchers were first able to establish the link between human salmonellosis and turtles in 1962. A more recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirms that the threat of contamination continues.

Recent evidence has again demonstrated that baby turtles with a carapace (or shell) of less than 4 in. in length can infect people with the organism Salmonella, which can result in invasive illness salmonellosis, a potentially serious, even fatal, disease especially in children younger than 5 years old, who are the ones who most often receive the small turtles as pets.

Symptoms of salmonellosis infections in people include diarrhea, cramps, and fever. The symptoms can show up between 6 and 72 hours after exposure, and can last 2 to 7 days.

For healthy adults, the illness is usually little more than an inconvenience. However, young children (5 years old or younger), older adults, and any individual with a compromised immune system are especially vulnerable to severe illness following infection.

Turtles normally carry Salmonella bacteria. The smaller turtles, which are often sold, illegally, as pets for younger children, often infect the children. Infection is normally through the fecal-oral route. In other words, younger children do not know enough to keep their hands away from their mouths and face after handling the turtle or touching the aquarium or the water that makes up the turtles environment.

The types of Salmonella found on turtles are not pathogenic to the turtles. The turtles can carry the Salmonella with no ill effects. However, some types of Salmonella found on turtles are especially virulent for humans.

FDA scientists point out that turtles can release, or shed, Salmonella intermittently. Therefore, even if a turtle shows no sign of contamination after it is tested, there is no guarantee that the turtle will remain free of Salmonella. Currently, no one has been able to demonstrate that a turtle that tests negative for Salmonella will not recolonize. It is likely a subsequent test may reveal Salmonella contamination.

The CDC presented six case studies in Salmonella transmission from turtles in its Morbidity, Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) issued in March 2005. Four of the cases were in Wisconsin and two were in Wyoming. All were linked to small, pet turtles. One of the cases involved an elderly woman and the rest involved small children. All were sick for several days, and several required hospitalization.

The Salmonella from baby turtles can also contaminate areas of a home other than the aquarium, thus making individuals sick even if they never touched the animal. One of the cases documented in the CDC’s MMWR report described an 80-year-old woman who was hospitalized for 5 days, then kept in transitional care unit for another 9 days, due to salmonellosis that came from a baby turtle. One of the family members where she lived washed the turtle’s bowl in the kitchen sink. Scientists found Salmonella typhimurium from the turtle’s habitat and from the sink. The isolates recovered from the woman and from the sink were matched through the use of pulsed-field gel electrophoresis, a sophisticated process that creates images of unique patterns from the bacterial isolates, thus revealing the type of Salmonella and giving researchers something to compare different isolates.

These reports demonstrate that turtle-associated salmonellosis continues to pose a substantial threat to human health. In addition, either direct or indirect contact with infected turtles and their environments can cause human illness.