Pet turtles — not a great idea

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

October 2012

In a column posted in January 2010 we mentioned that pet turtles were a source of Salmonella infection. That warning needs to be repeated following the surge this year in turtle-related infections. Although the sale of small turtles whose shell (carapace) measures less than 4 inches is illegal in the United States, these cute critters still find their way into the hands of hundreds of thousands of children each year.

Most adults can deal with Salmonella infection without much of a problem if you consider nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhea to be no big deal. At either end of the age spectrum, infancy and old age, it can be a major illness and it is sometimes fatal. In persons whose immune system has been compromised by AIDS or other diseases that lower one's resistance the bacteria may invade the blood stream and cause infection of the bones, joints or brain. Infected children can shed the germ in their stool for a month or so and spread it to others.

Salmonella has turned up in just about every type of household pet, including birds, but amphibians and reptiles lead the pack. The smallness and cuteness of turtles encourages kids to pick them up and play with them. Aquarium water is an ideal place for bacteria to grow so that a wet turtle is likely to wear a coating of Salmonella. Considering how often children put their fingers (or the turtle) near their mouth it's easy to see why so many kids — more than 80 in the first three months of 2012 — become infected.

A number of adults with no history of turtle contact have been reported to have Salmonella infection in the current outbreak. That's no surprise considering that they might have been infected by a turtle-caressing child without being aware of it. Although salmonellosis is often a foodborne infection the particular strains reported by the CDC this year are relatively rare in food but they have been linked in the past to amphibians.

Controlling these infections is impossible because the people who sell them do so illegally and are not likely to monitor their breeding tanks for infection, to procure Salmonella-free turtle food or to segregate infected stock. Nor are antibiotics the answer for infected humans. Antibiotics actually prolong intestinal excretion and do little to curb bowel symptoms.

If your kids really like turtles, buy them the toy kind.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.