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Salmonella warning: Small turtles an unhealthy pet choice for kids

Known carriers of Salmonella, turtles are a dangerous pet choice for young children.
Known carriers of Salmonella, turtles are a dangerous pet choice for young children.

Despite the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA's) more than three-decade ban on the sale of turtles less than 4 inches long for other than educational purposes, the tiny reptiles are still being sold illegally at fairs, flea markets and on the Internet.

There is no denying that turtles appear cute and harmless. They are, however, natural hosts for Salmonella bacteria, the source of the human disease, salmonellosis.

And while pregnant women, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems are at high risk for a Salmonella infection, young children make up the largest number of patients. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), from August 2010 to September 2011, 132 cases of Salmonella infection from contact with small turtles were reported in 18 states. The median age of infected patients was 6 and two-thirds were under the age of 10.

"Although many reptiles carry Salmonella, small turtles pose a greater risk to young children because they are perceived as safe pets, are small enough to be placed in the mouth, and can be handled as toys," explained the CDC.

The most common symptoms of salmonellosis include diarrhea, abdominal cramps and fever within 12 to 72 hours of contact with the bacteria. Additional symptoms may manifest as chills, headache, nausea, and vomiting that can last up to seven days. Salmonellosis can be life-threatening, especially to children under the age of 5.

"These little turtles are not appropriate pets for young children," Larry K. Pickering, MD, FAAP, editor of "Red Book" -- an American Academy of Pediatrics' publication on infectious diseases -- said in AAP News. He advises parents with young children to remove turtles from the home.

If you have a small turtle and choose to keep it, the CDC recommends the following safety precautions to ensure your family is Salmonella-free:

  • Wash your hands with soap and water immediately after handling a turtle, its tank, any of its paraphernalia, or after contact with its feces. Don't touch your face, other people, or any surface until your hands are washed.
  • Caution children against touching their faces and putting their hands in their mouths after handling a turtle and make sure they understand the importance of washing their hands with soap and water after any contact with the reptile.
  • Wash all surfaces your turtle's tank or paraphernalia has come in contact with.
  • Separate your turtle from any possible contact with food, and do not allow it to roam freely in any living areas.
  • Do not use the kitchen sink to wash your turtle or its dishes and tank.
  • Disinfect any area you use to wash your turtle, its paraphernalia or its tank with bleach.
  • Never hold, change or feed an infant after handling a turtle. Keep turtles away from persons with an increased risk for infection.

If you are still considering the purchase of a small turtle, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) cautions that some breeders and pet shops sell reptiles they claim to be Salmonella-free. However, Pickering warns that reptiles can easily become re-infected with Salmonella from the environment.

"Turtles are Salmonella factories," said Pickering. "All reptiles basically carry Salmonella. You have to assume if you see a turtle that it's got Salmonella in its intestines."

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