Yet another outbreak of salmonellosis traced back to pet turtles has been investigated by CDC and Pennsylvania’s State Health Department. Pet turtles are notorious Salmonella vectors, for several reasons, including the fact that small aquatic turtles very commonly carry the bacterium, they are marketed towards young kids (who are increased risk of infection), and people tend to use poor (or no) hygiene practices when handling turtles or having contact with their environments. Efforts to restrict the sale of small (less than 4-inch long) turtles have greatly reduced Salmonella infection rates in people in the US, but have come under continual pressure from the turtle breeding industry, and the regulation is often flaunted by pet stores and road-side turtle sellers.

From August 5 to September 26, 2011, 132 cases of Salmonella Paratyphi B infection were identified in 18 US states.

  • The median age of infected individuals was 6 years, and 2/3 were less than 10 years of age. This is consistent with a pet-associated outbreak.
  • 56 patients (and their families, presumably) were interviewed, and 64% of them reported turtle exposure. That’s a lot higher than one would expect if a random sample of the general US population was surveyed, and suggests that turtles were an important source.
  • Of the 15 people who could provide details about the turtle, 14 of them described turtles that would have been too small to be legally sold in the US. This isn’t surprising, and shows both the risk associated with these small turtles and the fact that this law is being widely ignored.
  • The same strain of Salmonella was isolated from turtle tank water in five homes (it’s not clear if only five were tested or if there were some negative tanks too). That’s further evidence implicating the turtles.

This is yet another reminder of the risks posed by small turtles, particularly to young kids. Small turtles have high Salmonella shedding rates, are easy to handle and are even small enough for kids to put in their mouths (yuck!). That’s a bad combination.

In 2007, Louisiana turtle breeders sued to reverse the FDA’s small turtle ban. Fortunately they weren’t successful, however it’s clear that the turtle ban needs to be enforced, but that’s hard to do. Perhaps more important, then, is increasing public awareness of the risks. If people are better informed of the issues, they can make better decisions about acquiring pets and how to properly manage them. One such resource for the public is the Turtles fact sheet that we have freely available on the Worms & Germs Resources page.