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Small Pet Turtles & the Rising Salmonella Risk

Aren"t they Adorable?
 
As a vet tech, you can appreciate how cute and harmless they look, but small turtles have recently been making people very ill.  Turtles commonly carry Salmonella bacteria on their outer skin and shell surfaces, and people can pick up the Salmonella by coming in contact with either turtles or their habitats (www.fda.gov/cvm/turtles.htm). 
 
Salmonella can cause a serious or even life-threatening infection in humans.  An example is the 2007 death of a four-week-old baby in Florida linked to Salmonella from a small turtle. The DNA of the Salmonella from the turtle matched that from the infant.
 
Ban on Sale of Small Turtles
 
Anyone can get Salmonella infection, but the risk is highest in infants, young children, elderly people, and people with lowered natural resistance to infection.
 
•All reptiles and amphibians are commonly contaminated with Salmonella,• says Joseph C. Paige, D.V.M., of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine.  •But it is the small turtles that most often are put in contact with young children, where consequences of infection are likely to be severe.•  Because of this health risk, since 1975, FDA has banned the sale of small turtles with a shell less than four inches long.
 
•Young children are ingenious in constructing ways to infect themselves,• says Paige. •They put the small turtles in their mouths or, more often, they touch the turtles or dangle their fingers in the turtle tank water and then put their hands in their mouths.  Also, sometimes the tanks and reptile paraphernalia are cleaned in the kitchen sink, and food and eating utensils get cross-contaminated.•
 
Surfaces such as countertops, tabletops, bare floors, and carpeting can also become contaminated with the bacteria if the turtle is allowed to roam on them. The bacteria may survive for a long period of time on these surfaces.
 
Rising Infection Rate
 
Infectious disease specialists estimate that banning small turtles prevents 100,000 Salmonella infections in children each year in the United States.  But disturbingly, Salmonella infections have recently increased because of resurgence in the sales of small turtles by some pet shops, flea markets, street vendors, and online stores.
 
From May 1, 2007, to January 18, 2008, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) received reports of Salmonella infection in 103 people-most of them children-in 33 states. The investigation showed that most of the sick people were exposed to a turtle (touching, feeding, cleaning habitat, changing water) shortly before they got sick. Two teenaged girls who became ill had been swimming in an unchlorinated pool where the family's pet turtles had also been allowed to swim.
 
Health officials found that the strain of Salmonella that caused the outbreak in people was the same strain found on many of the turtles (or their habitats) belonging to those who became ill.

By Michelle Simmons
Get Veterinary Technician Jobs, Contributing Editor

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