A report in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s journal MMWR described a multistate outbreak of human salmonellosis caused by contact with pet turtles. Officials investigated 103 cases of disease cause by a specific type of the Salmonella bacterium. Contact with turtles was identified as an important risk factor for disease. Sixty-three percent (63%) of people infected by this strain of Salmonella reported contact with turtles in the week before getting sick, compared to only 4% of others. Many people that became ill reported having touched a turtle. Some even reported kissing a turtle (don’t ask me why… I’m not making this up). Salmonella was cultured from turtles or their aquariums in some households. No fatalities were reported but some people were seriously ill and required hospitalization.

The association between turtles and Salmonella is nothing new. Upwards of 90% of healthy turtles may carry Salmonella bacteria. Antibiotic treatment is not effective at eliminating Salmonella carriage and there is no way to declare a turtle ‘Salmonella-free’. People can become infected through direct contact with turtles or their environment. Sale of turtles with a shell length of less than 4 inches was banned in the US over 30 years ago. This was because of the strong association between turtles and salmonellosis, particularly in children. Small turtles are more likely to be handled by children and put in their mouths.This measure has been estimated to have prevented 100 000 infections every year, however it is clear that (illegal) small turtles can still be readily purchased from pet stores or other sources. Turtles were less than 4 inches long in 86% of cases in this report where turtle size was reported. 

While turtles can be fascinating, they are definitely a high-risk pet. I used to have turtles but wouldn’t consider it now that I have young children. There are much better and safer pets for children. They should be avoided by households with children or people whose immune systems may be compromised. People who have pet turtles need to take precautions to reduce the risk of infection, but it cannot be completely eliminated.

More information about turtles can be found in our