Pet Turtles Pose Salmonella Danger to Kids

They're banned from sale by law but still appear at flea markets, pet shops, experts say

THURSDAY, July 5, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- Even though the sale of small turtles has been banned in the United States since 1975, American children are still contracting sometimes deadly Salmonella from these pets, experts at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warn.

In February, for example, a three-week-old Florida infant died from Salmonella poisoning after coming into contact with a pet turtle that a friend of the family had purchased as a gift at a flea market.

Nineteen other people, mostly children, across 11 states also became sick from the same Salmonella strain after handling pet turtles purchased at flea markets or pet stores, according to a report in the July 6 issue of the CDC's journal, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

"Salmonella can cause severe illness in children," cautioned report co-author Mark Sotir, a CDC epidemiologist. "Prohibiting the sale of these turtles is really the most effective way of preventing these illnesses," he said.

Sotir noted that, despite the law, small turtles -- defined as shells under 4 inches long -- still find their way into homes and "can be handled like toys by small children."

After the law went into effect, cases of turtle-related Salmonella fell by 100,000 annually, he said. But serious incidents still occur.

States in which turtle-related Salmonella was reported over the past year include Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Texas, according to the report. In addition, there were two cases in September 2006 in Ohio and Tennessee.

According to the CDC, Salmonella infection remains a major public health problem in the United States. Each year, 1.4 million cases are reported, an estimated 15,000 people are hospitalized, and 400 Americans die.

Gastrointestinal symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea, caused by the bacteria typically begin 12 to 36 hours after exposure and generally last for two to seven days.

Reptiles and amphibians, including turtles, account for about 6 percent of all Salmonella cases and 11 percent of cases for those under 21.

Most turtles do carry the dangerous bacteria, the agency notes, and humans typically come into contact with the bug from contact with the animal's feces. In addition, the water in turtle bowls or aquariums can also be contaminated with the bacterium. All turtles, regardless of size, should be handled as though they are infected, the CDC warns.

"Reptiles and amphibians should be kept out of households with children less than five years of age," Sotir said. "All persons who handle reptiles and amphibians should use hand washing and other hygiene techniques to keep clean after handling them," he added.

"Salmonella in turtles has been a long-standing problem," added Dr. Pascal James Imperato, chair of the department of preventive medicine and community health at the State University of New York's Downstate Medical Center in New York City. "Children have a propensity to put their fingers in their mouth, and so Salmonella is rather easily transmitted. Moreover, turtles are kept in water that is contaminated, and the children touch the water and become infected," he said.

"These are really not pets that young children should have," said Imperato, who strongly advised that parents not purchase turtles for young children, "who would not understand the need to wash their hands after touching either the turtle or the terrarium."

More information

For more on the Salmonella-turtle connection, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SOURCES: Mark Sotir, Ph.D., epidemiologist, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta; Pascal James Imperato, M.D., distinguished service professor and chair, department of preventive medicine and community health and director, master of public health program, State University of New York Downstate Medical Center, New York City; July 6, 2007, CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report
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