Salmonella infections from pet turtles is not a new concept. Most people are not at risk for serious disease, but everyone should take some basic steps to decrease their chance of infection. Basic hygiene is the key to keeping you, your family and your turtle safe and healthy.
What Is Salmonella?
Salmonella is a genus of bacteria that are known to cause gastrointestinal illness. It is shed in contaminated water or food and has absolutely nothing to do with salmon. It is very common for many reptiles to carry Salmonella and not show any clinical signs. It is part of their normal gastrointestinal microbes. Clinical signs in humans may include nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, diarrhea and other GI signs. If you suspect you may have salmonelosis, contact your health professional. Veterinarians are required to report any human Salmonella infections transmitted from pets to state or local health departments.
How Did My Turtle Get Salmonella?
Salmonella is not just specific to turtles or even reptiles in general. It makes up the normal gastrointestinal flora of many reptiles. It does not cause disease in these species except for some extreme instances. Your pet may be carrying Salmonella and test negative if they are not actively shedding the bacteria. It is best to assume any reptile or amphibians may be carrying Salmonella.
Salmonella can also be carried by many other species including cats, dogs, rodents, and other pets. An outbreak of Salmonella infections in hedgehogs occurred in 2013 and involved several states and over two dozen people. Salmonella can also cause infections in humans and other animals from infected food. Salmonella has also been associated with rodents fed to other reptiles, such as snakes. This includes frozen rodents!
The risk of contracting Salmonella is real and should be taken seriously, however, with proper handling and care, you can drastically decrease your risk of infection. If you are a healthy individual and live with other healthy people, you are at minimal risk. As with most infectious disease, there is greater risk for the very young, the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend not keeping reptiles at all in households with at-risk individuals).
How to Prevent Salmonella Infections
When it comes to keeping turtles and other reptiles, there is one key point to keep in mind: wash your hands. Wash your hands before handling your pet reptile and immediately after. Do not kiss or lick your turtle and supervise children handling pets. If your child cannot keep their mouths away from your pet, it is best to limit their interaction. The ban on selling hatchling turtles in the US was enacted back in 1975, largely in response to infections of Salmonella in children from pet turtles (which were small enough to fit in their mouths), which were widely available back then.
Keep all of your turtle system cleaning equipment out of your kitchen and clean it regularly. Do not use any of your turtle system equipment for other household tasks or other reptile systems. For aquatic turtles, do not use your equipment on other aquatic systems, such as fish tanks.
Turtles, especially aquatic turtles, like to make a mess of their tanks and swimming pools. Since Salmonella resides in their gut, any feces should be properly handled and disposed of regularly. Regular cleaning of the enclosure is critical to reduce your risk of contracting Salmonella. Regular water changes for aquatic turtles should be part of your regular maintenance. Do not suck on any hoses to get siphons started! This will increase your chance of coming into contact with Salmonella. After handling tank water, be sure to wash your hands and clean your equipment.
What Are "Salmonella-Free Turtles?"
In recent years, the concept of Salmonella-free turtles was introduced, where Salmonella bacteria are eradicated from turtle eggs, resulting in Salmonella-free hatchlings. However, studies have shown that previously Salmonella-free turtles may eventually test positive for Salmonella. And remember, a negative test does not mean the turtle is assumed Salmonella-negative! It just means they are not currently shedding any bacteria. Veterinary treatment of Salmonella in asymptomatic turtles using antibiotics is unsuccessful and are not treated unless clinical signs are present and a culture and sensitivity test has been performed.
Therefore, do not waste your money on these "bacteria-free" strains. The idea of buying Salmonella-free turtles only give owners a false sense of security. Even if you have a Salmonella positive turtle, which you most likely do, the risk of catching it is minimal if you take good care of your turtle and practice basic hygiene.
For more information about Salmonella and reptiles, visit the Association of Reptile and Amphibian Veterinarians. They have resources for pet owners and veterinarians concerning Salmonella infections in reptiles.