In response to recent posts about Salmonella and turtles, a reader posed these questions:

Okay, so turtles and tortoises can carry salmonella.  Does that mean that all do? 

  • Not all, but a lot of them do. Aquatic turtles are probably a greater risk than tortoises.

If a vet analyzes a poop sample from my Russian Tortoise and there is no Salmonella, does that mean we can quit worrying about it?

  • Unfortunately no. We can never be confident in declaring a reptile "Salmonella-free." Salmonella can be shed intermittently, so a single negative sample doesn’t mean the reptile is truly negative. We don’t know what the optimal testing protocol is in terms of what to sample, how often to do it and how many samples are needed. I’d never tell anyone a turtle or tortoise is Salmonella-free. To err on the side of caution, we have to assume that all reptiles are carrying Salmonella.

Conversely, if the poop does show Salmonella, is there any way to eliminate it from the tortoise and then quit worrying about it?  Our tortoise is isolated from other pets and only eats what we consider clean, fresh produce – so I am hoping the chance of reinfection would be minimal.

  • Unfortunately, no again. There’s no proven way of eliminating Salmonella from a reptile. Getting rid of Salmonella in an animal that is a carrier is different than treating a typical bacterial infection. Salmonella is a commensal bacterium in reptiles, meaning it can be a normal component of the animal’s bacterial microflora. It is very difficult to eliminate commensal bacteria since they have evolved to survive in (or on) their host. Unlike in clinical infections, which tend to be short term infections of a site where the bacterium does not normally live, using antibiotics to eliminate Salmonella carriage is unlikely to be successful. Giving antibiotics can also upset the normal intestinal bacterial population, which can actually make it more likely for bacteria like Salmonella to proliferate. Salmonella can also live inside intestinal cells, where most antibiotics can’t reach them. Treatment, therefore, is unlikely to be ineffective, and might just result in increased antibiotic resistance (something we certainly want to avoid).

Check out the Worms & Germs Resources page for more information.