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The Truth About Turtles and Salmonella

Pet Column for the week of June 8, 2009

Related information:

Services - Public Health

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Ashley Mitek
Information Specialist

Source - Dr. Mark A. Mitchell
In October 2007, the CDC received a startling phone call from the North Carolina Department of Public Health. According to an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, two young girls came to the emergency room with bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramping, and vomiting. One girl was in acute renal failure. While these clinical signs aren't rare enough to justify a call to the CDC for an outbreak inquiry, the surprising source of the girls' infection initiated a multi-state investigation.

As it turns out, both girls had swum in a backyard, non-chlorinated pool that the family's pet turtles had been allowed to take a dip in. With advanced diagnostics, doctors were able to prove that the pet turtles were carrying the same strain of Salmonella believed to sicken the girls.

"All reptiles can be carriers of Salmonella," says Dr. Mark Mitchell, an associate professor in the exotics and zoological medicine service at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana. While there are some species of bacteria that are not likely to cause disease, all Salmonella is considered pathogenic in humans.

While health officials have branded turtles as transmitters of Salmonella, it doesn't mean turtle owners across the country need to give up their beloved slow-moving, shell-covered friend. Dr. Mitchell says, "like any infectious disease, if you follow standard hygiene practices there shouldn't be a problem."

He goes on to say that having a pet reptile is just like owning a dog or cat. You should wash your hands after you play tug of war with your Pug, or pet your precious Persian. Also, many turtles are housed in aquariums and it is important that you not clean any of your reptile's enclosures in the kitchen sink, where cross contamination may occur.

In addition, families that have young children or infants need to be especially cautious. Many obstetricians recommend that their expectant patients not have reptiles in the home. While some reptile owners may just choose to pay extra attention to hygiene, it is worth noting that young people (especially infants) are more likely to become very sick, and potentially die from Salmonella.

In many of the documented human Salmonella cases contracted from turtles, the size of the shell has been mentioned. This is because in 1975 the CDC banned the sale of all turtles less than four inches, a law that is still in effect today. It was thought that smaller turtles could more easily be picked up and placed in the mouth of a young child. But "four inches is a very arbitrary number," notes Dr. Mitchell, "there is no difference in the prevalence of Salmonella in juvenile or adult turtles."

In the end, it is true that many pet turtles carry Salmonella that may cause disease in humans. But as long as you are aware of this, and take precautions, such as not allowing your turtle and toddler to play in the tub together, the spread of disease can be prevented. So don't be afraid to come out of your shell and touch a turtle.