Little turtles are popular pet substitutes for families whose children are allergic to cats and dogs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), however, warns the public that the animals can cause salmonella

In 2006, health officials recorded the first multistate salmonella outbreak in the U.S., which included four cases. From that year until 2011, authorities investigated four more outbreaks, which entailed 394 cases. One of the outbreaks was said to have claimed the life of a 3.5-week-old baby, who was exposed to a tiny turtle.

Numbers Linking Salmonella Outbreaks And Turtle Exposure

For the current research, the scientists studied eight outbreaks of salmonella related to small turtles from 2011 to 2014. The total number of cases was 473 and it included those from Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia.

The findings showed that children aged below 18, below 5, and below 1 made up 74 percent, 55 percent, and 23 percent of all cases respectively.

For race and ethnicity, Hispanics made up 45 percent of the cases.

Out of the patients who got infected, 28 percent required hospitalization, which commonly ran for three days.

The results of a turtle exposure questionnaire for 102 cases revealed that 80 percent had turtles at home. Almost two-thirds of the patients in this category had direct exposure to a turtle or in its habitat within the week of symptoms onset. About one-third of infants and children aged below 5 also exhibited the same findings.

How Turtles Are Associated With Salmonella

CDC warned that the bacteria may be present even if it's not seen. Salmonella can be found naturally in the gut of turtles and even if the bacteria are there, the animals do not necessarily exhibit signs and symptoms of infection. Aside from that, turtles do not shed the bacteria all the time hence, even if a turtle tested negative in diagnostic investigations, it does not confirm an infection-free state.

In homes, salmonella may be detected in surfaces and waters that turtle have had contact with. In one of the cases encountered by the researchers, a baby was infected with salmonella because feeding bottles were washed in a sink where a pet turtle habitat was also cleaned.

"All turtles - healthy and sick, big and small - can carry Salmonella," said lead author Dr. Maroya Walters from CDC.

Experts Advise Against Having Turtles As Family Pets

The researchers acknowledged that they were not able to track all turtles for sale because it is often illegally sold in unregulated locations such as street events and flea markets. Despite this, Dr. Elizabeth Barnett, from Boston University School of Medicine who wasn't involved in the study, believed that the authors were able to convey the importance of deviating from the idea of having turtles as pets.

"Turtles and other reptiles shouldn't be kept at home or school or any other facilities where there are children under 5," said Walters.

Government Ban On Pet Turtles

Since the 1970s, the U.S. government has banned selling turtles with shells that measure less than 4 inches. Although the ban and risks information were widely advocated, salmonella outbreaks continued to increase.

The study was published in the journal Pediatrics.

Photo: Henry Tseng | Flickr

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