Potential Salmonella Threat Posed by Pet Turtles Being Sold in Wisconsin


MADISON, Wisc. -- The Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services has learned that small turtles are being offered for sale as pets in various parts of the state despite a federal prohibition against their sale and distribution. The sale of these animals is of concern to health officials because turtles, like all reptiles, are often infected with Salmonella bacteria.


In the 1970s, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) prohibited sales of turtles with shells less than four inches in length because of the concern about Salmonella bacteria that turtles and other reptiles carry. Although Salmonella does not generally harm the reptiles, it can cause fever, vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhea in humans. Bloodstream infections are infrequent, but can be quite serious, even life threatening, particularly in the very young or elderly.


"The sale of small turtles is prohibited because they are often purchased for and handled by young children who can develop serious illness if infected with Salmonella," said Jeffrey Davis, MD, state epidemiologist with the Division of Public Health. "Children are more likely to become infected because after handling their pet turtle, they will often put their contaminated fingers into their mouths, accidentally ingesting the bacteria."


"The threat of human illness is very real," Davis said. In 2002, a four-month old Wisconsin infant had to be hospitalized for six days due to Salmonella acquired from another pet reptile. In 1998, a five-month-old child in Wisconsin died of a Salmonella infection that was traced to a pet iguana.


Davis noted that most of the sellers of these turtles have been cooperative; upon learning the sales are prohibited, they have voluntarily stopped their distribution. The Division of Public Health urges people who are at high risk of developing serious complications from Salmonella infection, such as the elderly, the very young, or those with compromised immunity to not keep turtles or reptiles as pets. Owners who wish to remove the turtles from their home should contact the seller about returning them or contact their local humane society. Wildlife officials caution that the turtles should not be released into the wild because they are not native to Wisconsin and can be harmful to the environment. If kept, owners should be extremely careful about hygiene after handling the animal and after cleaning the reptiles habitat.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers the following recommendations for all reptile owners:


-- Persons at increased risk for infection or serious complications of salmonellosis (e.g., children aged less than 5 years and immune compromised persons) should avoid contact with reptiles.

-- Pet reptiles should be kept out of households where children aged less than 1 year and immune compromised persons live. Families expecting a new child should remove the pet reptile from the home before the infant arrives.

-- Always wash hands thoroughly with soap and water after handling reptiles or reptile cages.

-- Pet reptiles should not be kept in childcare centers.

-- Pet reptiles should not be allowed to roam freely throughout the home or living area.

-- Pet reptiles should be kept out of kitchens and other food-preparation areas to prevent contamination. Kitchen sinks should not be used to bathe reptiles or to wash their dishes, cages, or aquariums. If bathtubs are used for these purposes, they should be cleaned thoroughly and disinfected with bleach.


"Following these guidelines should help minimize the chance of transmission of Salmonella from pets to their human owners." Davis said.


For more information about reptile-associated Salmonella, visit: dhfs.wisconsin.gov/dph_bcd/communicable/factsheets/ReptileSalmo.htm


Source: Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services

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