January 26, 2009
Thinking of Getting a Pet Turtle?
Consider the risks to your health, the earth and the animals
Consider before you buy...turtles carry Salmonella
Salmonella isn't just a food-borne illness. Turtles and other reptiles carry Salmonella bacteria, which can be easily transmitted to people. A small turtle may seem harmless, giving parents a false sense that they're a safe pet for children. But they're not. The disease risk is so great that selling small turtles is illegal in the United States.
Salmonella is especially dangerous for children and senior citizens
In 2007, a baby girl in Florida died from Salmonella that was traced back to a pet turtle. The turtle was sold illegally at a flea market and given to the family.
Salmonella usually gives people a few miserable days of fever and diarrhea, but some end up in the hospital with life-threatening complications. Children and people with weak immune systems are most at risk. Additionally, a small number of people with Salmonella infections later develop Reiter's syndrome, which causes pain in their joints and can lead to chronic arthritis.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says: Do not have a turtle in any household that includes children under five, the elderly, or people who have lowered natural resistance to disease due to pregnancy, cancer, chemotherapy, organ transplants, diabetes, liver problems or other diseases.
Selling small turtles is illegal
Selling small turtles—with shells less than four inches long—was banned in 1975 to prevent the spread of Salmonella. The CDC says this ban "likely remains the most effective public health action to prevent turtle-associated salmonellosis." Some sellers try to skirt the law by using the exceptions allowed for legitimate scientific and educational purposes. But just saying the turtle will be used for education or offering the turtle for free with the sale of a tank does not make it legal. In addition, some states and localities prohibit possession of turtles.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) enforces the ban on small turtle sales and has this advice for consumers: Don't buy small turtles for pets or as gifts.
You don't have to touch the turtle to get sick
You don't have to touch the turtle to get sick because Salmonella can live on surfaces. A 2006 study published in the journal Pediatrics found that exposure to reptiles was one of the biggest risk factors in determining whether infants get Salmonella. Infants aren't likely to handle reptiles. They probably get infected indirectly, such as a parent touching a turtle or cleaning a turtle's tank and then holding a child.
Turtles need a lifetime of specialized care
Turtles are often sold as low maintenance pets, but the truth is they need special care and a lot of room to grow. Turtles will not survive in a small dish with a plastic palm tree. They need the right lighting, temperature and water filtration system. Countless pet turtles die from being kept in inadequate conditions. Turtles shipped by mail and other delivery services often die on the way.
If maintained properly, however, turtles can live for decades and grow to be a foot long. That's a lifetime responsibility that many people are not prepared to meet.
Turtles should never be let loose outdoors
If you get a turtle and then decide you can't care for the animal, there are not many options. Rescue groups are inundated with calls to take them. People sometimes turn turtles loose, thinking they are "freeing" them, but it's typically illegal to release turtles outdoors. Turtles let loose might die, and they might carry disease that kills other turtles. If they live, they can out-compete native species for food and habitat, threatening native biodiversity. The red-eared slider turtles common in the pet trade are native to only part of the United States, but are turning up where they are not native across the country and around the globe. They are now considered among the word's 100 most invasive species.