September 2, 2004
Baby Turtles and Children: A Dangerous Combination
The disease risk from Salmonella is so great that selling small turtles is illegal
Kids and baby turtles may seem a harmless combination, until one considers that this union was the main cause of hundreds of thousands of cases of reptile-associated salmonellosis, primarily in children, during the 1970s when the pet turtle craze was at its peak.
Souvenir shops in a number of states would appear to be unconcerned about a repeat of this health disaster: They are offering baby turtles to the public. By doing so, they are not only posing a threat to the public, they are also violating federal law. The sale or distribution of turtles with a carapace (shell) under 4 inches in length is a violation of a 1975 federal law created to protect consumers, especially children, from the threat of reptile-associated salmonellosis.
The baby turtle craze in the '70s
During the 1970s it became something of a fad to buy baby turtles—usually red-eared sliders—about the size of a silver dollar, in a small bowl with a plastic palm tree. Many people contracted reptile-associated salmonellosis through direct and indirect contact with these animals. A 1972 study found that small pet turtles accounted for approximately one-quarter of Salmonella infections in children in New Jersey.
In 1975, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), on the advice of the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists, took action to curtail the reptile-associated salmonellosis outbreaks. It banned the sale or commercial distribution of turtles with a carapace length under 4 inches.
The measure worked very well: An estimated 100,000 cases of Salmonella infection in children were prevented in the first year alone. Baby turtles got a break as well; experts believed that these animals suffered an extremely high mortality rate within one year of purchase because of improper care, neglect, and abandonment.
Illegal turtle sales
There appears to have been a recent surge in the illegal sale or distribution of baby turtles. Red-eared sliders remain the turtle of choice, though map turtles, painted turtles, and pond turtles are also sold—at vacation spots and in cities across the country.
Since the scare of the '70s has receded in people’s memories, the FDA restrictions on the sale and distribution of baby turtles are difficult to enforce. Turtles are easy for merchants to obtain and very cheap. In addition, the advent of the Internet has made it easy to get these pets without even leaving home.
Baby turtles are often used by merchants as a cheap gimmick to lure customers into purchasing a tank and supplies. The merchants often don't tell consumers about the health threats, nor do they explain how to care properly for the turtle or that turtles, if they survive, will soon outgrow the tank and will require a larger, much more expensive one.
For merchants, baby turtles can be big business. According to the American Pet Product Manufacturers Association, in one year, U.S. pet turtle owners spent an estimated $42 million on products for a pet that, on average, cost a mere $23.
When the baby turtle grows into an adult and the novelty wears off, owners often become overwhelmed and relinquish the animal to a shelter or simply let the animal loose outdoors. Turtle let loose will likely perish. But if they survive, they may become a menace and possibly a disease threat to local wildlife. Red-eared sliders are native to only part of the United States, but they are becoming established throughout the country and around the world. In Florida, for example, they have been found to interbreed with the state’s native yellow-bellied sliders, leading state regulations to ban possession of red-eared sliders.
A child dies
In 2007, the unthinkable occurred. A four-week-old girl died from Salmonella traced back to a pet turtle. The turtle was sold illegally at a flea market and given to her family.
In the months following her death, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identified a multistate outbreak with dozens of cases of turtle-associated salmonellosis.
State by state examples
Arizona: In 2007, the Maricopa County, Ariz., Department of Public Health warned consumers about the risks of pet turtles after turtles were seen illegally for sale by street vendors and 11 children under 8 years old contracted salmonellosis.
Florida: In 2007, the FDA investigated after a young child required urgent medical care and hospitalization due to salmonellosis from a pet turtle. They identified a store in a mall as the seller and asked them to immediately cease small turtle sales.
Illinois: In 2006, The Humane Society of the United States learned about an Illinois shop illegally selling small turtles, and along with others notified the Food and Drug Administration. The store stopped selling the turtles.
Texas: In 2003, the FDA warned a merchant in a Houston mall against selling young turtles. The merchant complied with the order and sent the remaining 166 turtles to a Texas turtle sanctuary.
Wisconsin: In 2004, several children contracted Salmonella after handling small turtles purchased at souvenir shops. The Wisconsin Division of Public Health identified at least six shops selling the animals. When told the sales were illegal all but one agreed to stop. One merchant claimed his turtles were Salmonella free. Tests were carried out, even though health officials warn the tests can produce false negatives because turtles (and all reptiles) can harbor Salmonella bacteria without detection and shed it intermittently in their feces. Still, all six tests came back positive.
Wyoming: In 2004, an 80-year-old woman and a 6-year-old boy from different households were hospitalized with Salmonella infections from turtles purchased at the same pet store. The boy had handled his two turtles, but the woman had only indirect contact: the turtle bowl was cleaned in the family kitchen sink. The store had previously refused to stop its illegal turtle sales; after these cases the county health department confiscated its remaining turtles.
In 2009, The Humane Society of the United States has received reports of turtles illegally for sale in shops in South Carolina, Florida, and Arizona, and on the streets of Washington, D.C.
Bona fide educational and scientific purposes
The FDA rules allow small turtles to be sold for bona fide educational, scientific, and exhibit purposes. Sellers attempt to skirt the law by stating that the turtles are sold for these purposes when they are clearly being sold as pets. They also may offer baby turtles free with purchase of equipment or for "adoption."
However, these transactions are still commercial distributions of turtles that are prohibited by federal law. And they put people at risk of Salmonella and subject turtles to the dangers of shipping and handling, and inadequate care.
A dangerous business
Baby turtles are shipped around the country in all kinds of weather. Many die from rough handling, temperature extremes, and neglect. Historically, the mortality of baby turtles has been of little importance to dealers because turtles are relatively cheap.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reptiles (snakes, lizards, turtles, and crocodilians) are a well-recognized source of Salmonella bacteria. Reptiles and amphibians are estimated to account for 74,000 cases of salmonellosis each year---approximately 6 percent of all Salmonella infections in the United States and 11 percent of infections among people under 21 years old.
Salmonella infection causes fever, abdominal pain, and bloody diarrhea. Patients usually recover in several days, but may require antibiotics to fight the illness. Certain individuals are considered high-risk for serious complications, such as those with weakened immune systems, pregnant women, the elderly, and children aged 5 years and younger. For these groups a bout with salmonellosis may be devastating, leading to blood infections, meningitis, osteomyelitis (infection of bone), miscarriage, and possibly death.
The CDC recommends these individuals, including children under 5, have no contact with reptiles.
What you can do
- Report illegal sales of baby turtles to local authorities as well as the local humane society and the FDA. Contact information for the FDA’s consumer complaint coordinators can be found here.
- Contact the FDA, asking that it continue the crack down on illegal sales of baby turtles.
- Do not purchase turtles.
- If you already have a turtle and have decided to give up your reptile, contact a local humane society or animal control agency for advice. Do not release unwanted pets into the wild.
- If you choose to keep a small turtle or any reptile in your home, make certain to know and follow the hygiene guidelines of the CDC.
- Ask your local or state government to prohibit sales of turtles.
Michelle Jacmenovic is a former research associate in The HSUS's Wildlife section.