Turtles: not a kid’s best friend

An ongoing outbreak of Salmonella associated with turtles has now sickened more than 100 and caused a quarter of that number to be hospitalized:

Cases have been reported in 33 states, but mostly in California, Texas, Pennsylvania and Illinois. Most of the patients have been children.

No one has died in the latest outbreak, which began in August. But some patients have experienced severe symptoms, including acute kidney failure.

The most common symptoms reported to the CDC included bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramping, fever and vomiting. The median age of patients was 7 1/2 .

More after the jump…


As they note, the vast majority of these cases have occurred in children–and most of those have been in kids either with turtles in their families, or whose relatives or friends own turtles. In one case, they note, an infant was infected after getting a bath in a sink which had been used for disposal of turtle waste.

I’ve blogged previously on the problems posed by out-of-the-ordinary pets. While turtles may not be quite as exotic as a Gambian rat or a kinkajou, they can spread disease just as easily. Many species of reptile carry Salmonella, but turtles are especially problematic because they’re so often pets of small children. Indeed, while the vast majority of human Salmonella infections are due to contaminated food, it’s estimated that around 6% of infections with this bacterium come from turtles. This number isn’t small potatoes, given it’s estimated there are around a million and a half Salmonella infections per year in the U.S.

Given this disease burden, you may wonder why there isn’t regulation of turtles as pets. Turns out there is–but there are loopholes. More than 20 years ago, an FDA regulation was put into place forbidding the sale of turtles under 4 inches in size. However, that doesn’t prevent unscrupulous salesmen from “giving them away” when a consumer buys a tank and food, or to sell them to interested parties for “educational” purposes–putting consumers at risk.

In the end, no pet, of course, is sterile. Dogs, cats, hamsters, and even fish carry their own potential pathogens. Parents should take care whenever their kids handle animals, and hands should be carefully washed after playing. The problem is that many parents don’t realize the health risk turtles pose, especially to young children. After all, how could anything that cute be dangerous?

Comments

  1. #1 steven popkes
    January 28, 2008

    As a turtle and tortoise breeder, I have to respond a bit to this.

    First, children have to be educated on how to handle any animal. You don’t want them to get toxoplasmosis from your cat anymore than you want them to get salmonella from your turtle. Parents have a bad tendency to dismiss hygiene when it comes to animals. I’ve seen parents smile when their children kiss the cat, dog or turtle.

    Second, the problem with reptiles carrying diseases is four fold.

    1)Reptiles are not particularly clean animals. They don’t mind their own feces. Consequently, it’s especially important to wash your hands.
    2)Cold blooded animals have a different disease complement than warm blooded animals. You’re unlikely to get an E. coli infection from a reptile but you can get other parasites.
    3)Reptiles are often collected and shipped in very poor conditions. A reptile can tolerate abuse for a long time and appear healthy when they are actually quite sick. You have to know who the reptile vendor is in order to trust where the reptile has come from.
    4)Few people know how to properly care for a reptile in general and turtles in particular. See #3.

    My wife and I got into the breeding business from doing turtle rescue. Usually, this involved getting animals that had been through an entire chain of abuse from collection to distribution to sales to us. Breeding healthy animals and injecting them into the pet trade was an attempt to prevent all of these problems in our own small way.

    We’ve been doing this for nearly twenty years and we have a ten year old son who’s never had any difficulties with the herd. But you can bet *he* washes his hands.

  2. #2 Sven DiMilo
    January 28, 2008

    The 4-inch law is casually and brazenly ignored in flea markets, Chinatowns, and boardwalks all over the US and has been for years. When I lived in Venice CA over a decade ago, hatchling red-eared sliders were sold by the truckload every weekend down at the boardwalk. Law enforcement agencies I contacted all passed the buck; even if they knew about the law (rare), nobody seemed to know who was supposed to be enforcing it. Sliders are bred by the bazillions in huge operations mostly in Louisiana for export and quasi-legal sale. They’re cute as hell (see pic above) but with even half-decent care grow to dinner-plate size in a matter of a few years, often with a nasty disposition to boot. So people “set them free” and now red-eared sliders are the zebra mussels of reptiles, having established invasive breeding colonies all over the continent and world. In Australia they’re treated like brown tree snakes in Hawaii. The whole thing is sick, sick, sick and it’s driven primarily by greedy assholes who don’t give a shit. I’ll stop ranting now but man, this pisses me off.

  3. #3 The Monkey Man
    January 28, 2008

    that tortoise in the picture looks mighty tasty…..

  4. #4 Steve Reuland
    January 30, 2008

    But TURTLES IS CUTE.

    Way to ruin everyone’s fun, Tara. Or should I say, Ms. Hitler?

  5. #5 Dave Briggs
    January 30, 2008

    The problem is that many parents don’t realize the health risk turtles pose, especially to young children. After all, how could anything that cute be dangerous?

    Thanks for the heads up. And I don’t think you are Ms. Hitler! LOL! But I understand the point. Life is full of experts letting us know that the cute and attractive something or another can be deadly. Even Karmen calls her blog Chaotic Utopia! We need to be warned about the Chaotic part!
    Dave Briggs :~)

  6. #6 Fleming
    January 30, 2008

    What a crock — these turtles are cute. Nobody, I mean, nobody has ever died from petting a turtle.

    You people are Germaphobes! The germs are gonna get you! The germs are gonna get you. LOL!

    Back on planet earth, most Americans die of heart disease, cancer and stroke — not germs.

    Fleming

  7. #7 Tara C. Smith
    January 31, 2008

    Nobody, I mean, nobody has ever died from petting a turtle.

    Fleming, I realize you’re just trolling, but you’re wrong. Turtle-associated Salmonella *has* caused deaths, including a recent one involving an infant.

    Back on planet earth, most Americans die of heart disease, cancer and stroke — not germs.

    It’s not all about deaths. Infections are a major cause of morbidity, even if they’re not a leading cause of mortality in this country, and complications from Salmonella and other gastrointestinal infections can sometimes linger for life.

  8. #8 Chris Noble
    January 31, 2008

    Back on planet earth, most Americans die of heart disease, cancer and stroke — not germs.

    I know I shouldn’t respond to trolls – but -

    What were the leading causes of death 100 or 200 years ago? What advances have been made in this time? Why is it that infectious diseases are currently not the leading cause of death in countries like the US?

  9. #9 pat
    January 31, 2008

    “I know I shouldn’t respond to trolls – but -…”

    …it is my raison d’être.

  10. #10 Monado in Washington, D.C.
    January 31, 2008

    I was dismayed to read once that 40% of poultry is contaminated with Salmonella. I assumed that the statistic is accurate. Why, then, is there no fuss about avoiding chicken? At least there should be more emphasis on getting people to wash thoroughly after touching chicken. It seems only fair if people are going to panic about turtles.

    I’ve kept turtles as a child and an adult and so did my in-laws. (We had four, including a rescued turtle from the roadside that dragged its hind legs and two pet-shop terrapins that were ill and needed a good home. The in-laws had adult red-eared sliders.) As far as I know no one got sick from them; but we did wash our hands.

    The inlaws provided the information that many turtles die because that they need to be warm to develop an appetite, and people don’t give them a way to “sun” themselves. We used a heat lamp for warmth and a regular lamp to show the turtles where the heat lamp was shining.

  11. #11 Tara C. Smith
    January 31, 2008

    There *has* been a lot of fuss about washing hands, using different utensils, cutting boards, etc. after handling chicken. Heck, there’s even a “handling raw chicken for dummies” page. But there’s a number of important differences. First, children aren’t typically going to be the ones handling raw chicken, while they are the ones usually playing with the turtles. Second, because of educational pushes about Salmonella and chicken, people are much more aware of that potential for contamination. A much smaller percentage of the population realizes that turtles can act as a Salmonella reservoir, so handwashing isn’t harped upon nearly as much.

  12. #12 Stephen Wells
    February 5, 2008

    We kept a tortoise in Arizona, and always had a canister of that alcohol-based hand-wash gel right next to the tank. You handle the tortoise, you wash hands with alcohol afterwards. No problem.

    OT but cool: try putting a big dollop of that gel on a plate and set a match to it in a dark room. Pretty blue flames!

  13. #13 Chelydra
    February 7, 2008

    I really don’t understand why people think banning the sale of small turtles is an appropriate response to the risk of contracting Salmonella from them. As has been pointed out above, raw chicken is also a high-risk source, but the government chooses education over bans. Why should responsible turtle hobbyists be prevented from purchasing small turtles responsibly because some parents can’t choose a pet for their child responsibly? Some turtle species don’t reach four inches even as adults, preventing them from being legally sold at all.

    Inferring from above, the CDC estimates that 90,000 people contract Salmonella each year from turtles. This seems like a large number, but they also estimate that nearly 5 million Americans are bitten by dogs each year, with 800,000 bites requiring medical treatment, 400,000 of which are to children. If we’re going to ban turtles instead of educate people about them, it would seem prudent to ban dogs as well.

  14. #14 Red
    January 27, 2009

    Usually, this involved getting animals that had been through an entire chain of abuse from collection to distribution to sales to us. Breeding healthy animals and injecting them into the pet trade was an attempt to prevent all of these problems in our own small way.

    for what???