Don't buy small turtles as pets or give them as gifts - that's the message from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, after an outbreak of human Salmonella infections was linked to contact with pet turtles.
According to the CDC, there have been 37 cases of salmonella across 13 states, resulting in 16 hospitalisations. No deaths have been reported. Illnesses were recorded between March and August of this year - and 12 of those affected were aged five or under.
"Epidemiologic and laboratory findings link the outbreak of human Salmonella Agbeni infections to contact with turtles or their environments," the CDC said in a statement, "such as water from a turtle habitat".
The CDC further notes that, "All turtles, regardless of size, can carry Salmonella bacteria even if they look healthy and clean."
For that reason, the organisation advises against owning a turtle if you have children under the age of five, are over 65 years old, or have a weak immune system. "These groups have a higher chance of serious illness and hospitalization from Salmonella germs," the CDC notes.
A 2015 study, published in the British Medical Journal, also found that reptile exposure was linked to a quarter of all reported Salmonella cases in children under 5 years of age, over a three-year period.
If you do own a turtle, the CDC recommends following these safety tips:
- Always wash your hands thoroughly after handling reptiles and amphibians, and anything in the area where they live or roam such as their habitats, food, or equipment.
- Don't cross-contaminate. You don't have to touch a reptile or amphibian to get sick from their germs. Any reptile food such as frozen or live rodents, equipment, and materials, including the tank water, can be contaminated with Salmonella and other germs
- Keep your reptiles and amphibians and their equipment out of your kitchen or anywhere food is prepared, served, or eaten.
- Clean reptile and amphibian habitats outside your home.
- Don't kiss or snuggle with reptiles and amphibians.
According to the RSPCA, "Keeping native (freshwater) turtles as pets requires special care and is subject to permit or licensing restrictions. These vary between states and territories."
In NSW, for example, it is illegal to keep reptiles without the appropriate licence. You can apply for a NSW Reptile Keeper's licence at NSW Office of Environment and Heritage.