A UK hairdresser is recovering from necrotizing fasciitis (flesh-eating disease) that was linked to his pet turtle. The problem started when he cut his finger while cleaning out the turtle’s tank. An infection developed, which isn’t too surprising since a turtle terrarium is full of a variety of bacteria. However, instead of a mild, local infection, he developed an aggressive infection that started to spread up his arm. "His finger turned black and his arm became swollen and red." Amputation was discussed, which is not infrequently necessary in cases of such severe infection.

It doesn’t sound like there were any cultures taken from the wound at the start, but after the infection didn’t respond to the initial course of antibiotics, the man ended up in hospital in IV antibiotics. The infection progressed from his finger to his bloodstream and a bacterium, a Group G Streptococcus, was isolated from his blood.

Here’s where more details would be useful. The news article simply says "…and the terrapin, called Cosmo, was identified as the culprit."

It doesn’t say how Cosmo was implicated. To make a link, they’d have to find the same bacterium in the turtle’s tank. Ideally, beyond just isolating the bug, they’d show that it was the same strain. It’s possible this was done, but rarely do people go to that extent, so it’s possible that the link was just presumptively made because the initial injury occurred in the tank. The problem with that is Group G strep can also be found in healthy people (10-25% in some studies). Therefore, while he set the scene for the infection in the tank, by breaking his skin, he could have become infected from bacteria already on or in his body. Additionally, other animal sources are possible, such as dogs (since one type of Group G strep is Streptococcus canis). If he cut his finger, then had contact with another animal, it could have been the source.

Most of the attention paid to turtles and infectious disease revolves around Salmonella, and that risk is real. However, turtles, like any other animal (or person), also carry a variety of other potentially harmful bacteria. These usually don’t cause problems, but in certain situations, the risk of disease is higher. The skin is a wonderful barrier to infection, and any time it gets broken, there is a risk of disease. 

In general, we recommend a few things when cleaning out an aquarium of any kind (be it for fish, reptiles or amphibians):

  • Avoid having sharp objects in the aquarium. If any sharp or rough objects are present, take care to avoid contact with them while cleaning.
  • Wear gloves, particularly if you have open wounds or if there are sharp/rough surfaces in the aquarium.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly after having contact with aquarium water or contents. If you were wearing gloves, wash your hands after glove removal.
  • Avoid contaminating other areas, especially kitchen sinks or counters, with aquarium water.
  • If you cut yourself while cleaning out an aquarium, wash out the wound thoroughly as soon as possible.
  • If you have a compromised immune system, try to avoid any contact with aquarium water or contents by getting someone else to clean out the tank.

(click image for source)