Beware of Turtle: Pet Reptiles Cause Salmonella Outbreak in 13 States

The Centers for Disease Control is warning the public about the health risks associated with tiny pet turtles. Tony Gentile/REUTERS

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is cautioning people to think twice before bringing home turtles to keep as pets.

On Tuesday, the agency said 13 states are currently investigating outbreaks of salmonella linked to contact with the hard-shelled reptiles. New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio and Connecticut had the highest number of reported infections. In New York, 11 people were sickened by salmonella from turtle contact. So far, the agency has reported 37 cases of salmonella illness and 16 hospitalizations in the current outbreak. Twelve of the people—32 percent—who fell ill are children under age 5.

Lab tests from the 37 patients revealed they all tested positive for Salmonella Agbeni, a rare strain of the bacteria that doesn't typically infect humans. Nearly half of 33 patients responding to questions said they'd had contact the week before with pet turtles, their food, tank or habitat. Six of nine people interviewed said they'd bought the turtle from a flea market or street vendor, or received it as a gift.

All turtles carry salmonella bacteria, and recent research has suggested that the smallest ones may be the most harmful for spreading these unwanted germs, which lead to diarrheal illness, fever, chills and stomach pain. The illness can last for up to a week.

This is not the first turtle-related salmonella outbreak. The CDC reports that from 2011 to 2013, eight multistate outbreaks of salmonella were linked to the reptiles, which sickened a total of 473 people in 41 states in the U.S. Cases occurred in people from ages 1 to 94 years old, but the average age was 4 years old.

In 2015, state and local health officials acquired samples from small turtles from a number of street vendors, then conducted whole genome sequencing. The results proved that the strain of salmonella in human outbreaks is genetically closely linked to the bacteria carried by these turtles.

The Food and Drug Administration and other public health officials have recommended avoiding contact with small turtles. Since 1975, the FDA has banned sales and distribution of turtles with shells smaller than four inches. The agency said this current outbreak is likely to continue because so many people are unaware of health hazards related to contact with the animals.

"All turtles, regardless of size, can carry Salmonella bacteria even if they look healthy and clean," the CDC said in a statement issued on Tuesday. "Do not buy small turtles as pets or give them as gifts."

A report from the CDC, "The Trouble With Tiny Turtles," offers some practical advice for staying safe as a reptile owner. Tips include washing hands after contact with pet turtles and cleaning their tank or habitat. The experts also recommend pet owners refrain from bathing turtles or cleaning turtle tanks in the kitchen or bathroom. "Don't kiss or snuggle with your turtle," advises the CDC. "This can increase your risk of getting sick."