Turtles Are a Leading Salmonella Threat

Posted on October 4, 2012

We often hear about instances where Salmonella outbreaks occur because the food that certain people ate had been contaminated with the dangerous organism.  However, a new report sheds light on an innocuous-seeming trend that might actually be causing far more illnesses than contaminated food: pet turtles leading young children and other people to incur a Salmonella contamination.

Many people might not realize that turtles whose shells are smaller than four inches in length have been illegal to sell for about 37 years.  That’s because when reptiles who have these small shells expel fecal matter, Salmonella traces will remain on the shell of the creature.  When someone then goes to pick up said turtle, that bacteria is likely to transfer to the person who picked it up.

This threat should not be underestimated.  This year alone, 196 people have become ill likely because of their exposure to a turtle whose shell had been contaminated with Salmonella, and 36 of those involved some sort of hospitalization.  These illnesses stem from six outbreaks that have been tied by the Centers for Disease Control to some type of small turtle.  Of the reported illnesses, nearly two thirds were incurred by a child under 10, while 29% affected a kid less than one year old.

A Maryland Natural Resource Police spokesperson explains that turtles have been popping up for sale in greater numbers as of late, although no one is really sure why.  In July, Maryland police put a halt to the sale of the animals at a pet store and an impromptu retail outlet placed near the local Six Flags amusement park.  Still other sellers get around the law by giving away the creatures when the consumers purchase something else.  Since they’re free, there’s no sale technically taking place.

A member of the Center for Veterinary Medicine of the Food and Drug Administration explains that it’s not just turtles that might spread Salmonella, as the organism is typically prevalent in all types of reptiles.  However, turtles are the animal most likely to be brought into contact with a child.

There are a few different ways that Salmonella might be transferred to kids.  Children will touch the turtles and then put their hands in their mouth, and sometimes they’ll eliminate the middleman altogether and touch the turtle directly to their mouths.  One other risk that people might overlook is the cleaning of the tank of the pet.  If the tank, or anything else that comes into contact with a reptile, gets washed in the sink, it could lead to further contamination if that’s the place where you also clean dishes and kitchenware.

So the next time you hear a kid say, “I like turtles,” consider the danger.

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