Following a report on black market turtle sales in Maryland, a letter to the Baltimore Sun by Maryland veterinarian Dr. Jeffery Rhody wanted to "set the record straight".

"All reptiles carry salmonella as part of the normal bacterial population in their body."

  • Not really true, however Salmonella can commonly be found in healthy reptiles, so the overall sentiment is valid.

"The risk of getting infected with salmonella from a reptile can be greatly reduced with common sense hygiene practices."

  • Absolutely. General infection control practices are critical to reduce (but they do not eliminate) the risk of Salmonella transmission.

"In fact, the incidence of reptile-borne salmonella infections is much less than salmonella infections obtained from improperly handled poultry products."

  • Statistics can be manipulated to either support or refute this. The absolute number of Salmonella cases from food is certainly greater than those from turtles. However, I’m not so sure turtles end up looking good when you consider the number of cases compared to the number of people exposed to these factors – a lot more people eat food than own turtles.  The number of cases of Salmonella associated with reptile contact every year is stunning, even though only a small percentage of people own reptiles. Fatal infections can occur, so it’s not something to take lightly. Statements like the one above can get into some questionable logic, like saying that a machine gun can kill more people than a handgun, so handguns must be safe. Certainly, Salmonella is a risk with handling raw poultry, and efforts are taken to get people to reduce risky behaviours (like contaminating kitchen surfaces with raw meat). The same should apply to reducing risky behaviours with regard to pet contact.

"Of course, if you lick a turtle, the risk of salmonella infection is greatly increased."

  • Yep. That’s why the focus is on small turtles. But, people get Salmonella from larger turtles too.

"No one who owns a slider should be concerned about breaking the law."

  • They should, however, be concerned about getting sick. Turtle owners should learn about risks and preventive measures from sources such as a the information sheet in our Resources page.

As someone who has owned turtles, I understand the appeal of these animals. As someone involved in zoonotic diseases, I understand the risks. People need to have enough information to understand the risks and benefits, to make logical, informed decisions. The risks to healthy adults who handle the animals properly is quite low. That’s why the focus is on high risk households like those with young children, the elderly or immunocompromised individuals. There are good reasons for the ban on the sale of small turtles. Banning the sale of small turtles doesn’t hurt anyone (except for people wanting to profit from selling them), and may prevent disease. Seems logical to me.

  • Great informative article – educating turtle owners and would be turtle owners about salmonella is always needed and will never get old

    (by the way, the pic you have is an eastern painted turtle)