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FDA: Pet Turtles Still Carry Risk of Salmonella

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Following the salmonella-related death of a four-week-old infant in Florida, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is urgently reminding consumers of the health risks posed by pet turtles. According to the agency, “contact with baby turtles can pose a serious health risk to infants, small children, and adults with impaired immune systems as they can be natural hosts to salmonella, a group of bacteria that can cause severe illness and death.”

In the case of the Florida child, the salmonella was indeed traced back to a pet turtle that was living in the house. Salmonella can often be present on both the outer skin and shell surface of turtles, and the bacteria can be spread through direct contact with the animal, contact with its feces, or even contact with the animal’s drinking water.

Pet turtles, especially of the type known as red-eared sliders, had been responsible for approximately 280,000 annual cases of salmonella-related disease in the United States in the early 1970s. To counteract the problem, the FDA banned the sale of all turtles with a shell less than four inches long in 1975. However, the agency has noted a marked surge in the sale of pet turtles during the past four years, bringing with it fears of an expanding salmonella problem. The bacteria are still responsible for an estimated 74,000 cases of turtle-related salmonellosis every year in the U.S.

The FDA offers the following reminders to those who are considering contact with turtles: The sale of turtles with a shell less than four inches long is illegal, unless they are used for scientific, educational, or exhibition purposes; salmonella infection can be caused by contact with turtles in petting zoos, parks, and child day care facilities; and it is important to wash hands thoroughly with soap and water after handling or touching turtles and their housing.

The risk of severe salmonella poisoning is highest among infants, young children, the elderly, and adults with weakened immune systems. Pregnancy, cancer, chemotherapy, organ transplant, diabetes, and liver problems are also risk factors.

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