Pet Turtles Can Make People Sick: Guidance for Clinicians

Janell Routh, MD


June 25, 2012

Editorial Collaboration

Medscape &

In This Article

Small Turtles Can Make People Sick

Small turtles have been making people sick for decades. Clinicians need to take specific steps to help protect patients and their families. In the United States, selling turtles with a shell less than 4 inches in length has been banned by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) since 1975.[1] Despite the FDA's ban, small turtles continue to be sold in a variety of venues, including stores, flea markets, and fairs, and from roadside or street vendors.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently published a report[2] describing an outbreak involving 132 people who became ill with salmonellosis from August 2010 to September 2011 that was linked to contact with small turtles and their habitats. During this outbreak, interviews were conducted with 56 patients, and 36 (64%) of them reported exposure to a turtle in the week preceding their illness. For 15 patients who could recall the type of turtle they touched, 14 identified small turtles with a shell length of less than 4 inches. These turtles were subject to the FDA ban and should not have been for sale to the public.

This was the fifth multistate outbreak of human Salmonella infections associated with small turtles in the past 5 years. These outbreaks illustrate that contact with small turtles remains an important source of human Salmonella infections, especially for high-risk patients, including young children, the elderly, pregnant women, and those who are immunocompromised.

Small turtles pose a risk to young children because they are mistakenly thought to be safe pets; they are small enough to be placed in the mouth and they can be handled as toys. Although young children are especially at risk for serious illness, anyone can get sick from handling the turtle or its environment, including the water from containers or aquariums where they live. This water can also cross-contaminate areas where tanks are kept or cleaned, which can indirectly lead to illness in people who did not directly touch a turtle or its habitat.


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