Despite a long-standing federal ban on the sale of small turtles, the reptiles continue to be sold in the U.S. and to make owners, usually young children, sick with Salmonella — sometimes very sick, health officials warn in a report to be released.
“Most people are unaware of the dangers of turtles as pets,” Dr. Julie Harris, a medical epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, told Reuters Health.
Turtles and other reptiles are well-known reservoirs for Salmonella, and while the sale and distribution of small turtles — measuring less than 4 inches — was officially outlawed in the United States in 1975, cases of turtle-associated Salmonella infection continue to occur.
Salmonella, Harris told Reuters Health, is a “serious infection,” which can lead to hospitalization and, in some cases, death. “Children are more susceptible than adults, and often have more complications from infection,” she added.
In the yet-unreleased November issue of the journal Pediatrics, Harris and colleagues will detail a large outbreak of turtle-associated Salmonella, occurring between May 2007 and January 2008 and involving 34 states and 107 people.
“In this outbreak, 59 percent of patients were 10 years of age or younger, and 33 percent of all patients interviewed were hospitalized,” Harris said.
“We observed a strong association between turtle exposure and Salmonella infections in this outbreak,” the investigators report.
Forty-seven of 78 patients interviewed — a full 60 percent — reported contact with turtles during the week prior to their becoming sick.
Small turtles remain available to the public illegally from various sources, including pet shops, flea markets, street vendors, and the internet.
And don’t be fooled by sellers: “No one has succeeded in making a Salmonella-free turtle,” Harris said. “Antibiotic treatment of eggs often results in turtles with drug-resistant Salmonella infections.”
“Even if a turtle is born without Salmonella, because Salmonella exists in many places in the environment, it is difficult if not impossible to keep a turtle free of Salmonella,” Harris added.