Tiny Turtle–Serious Health Threat

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Turtle, on the rocks, illuminated by the sun

By Abigail Ferrell, JD, MPA

As children, my brother and I talked our very patient mother into letting us have a wide variety of creatures as domestic pets. Nothing too exotic—mostly cats, dogs, and vermin (read: hamsters)—but my brother was also famous for catching wild creatures. We lived near a pond and my brother’s summers were spent feeding, wading, fishing for, and catching all kinds of aquatic life. He was usually allowed to keep a creature for an afternoon but then had to release it back to its home.

 Wild, freshwater turtles are difficult to catch and, other than a couple of accidental catches while fishing, I don’t remember many interactions with wild turtles. But once he caught two different turtle species on the same day: a common snapping turtle and a painted turtle. He commandeered two of our grandmother’s buckets and kept the turtles for a few hours before releasing them unharmed, but not before looking them up in our grandmother’s wildlife books and wearing himself out running back and forth between the two buckets and the house.Young boy looking through magnifying glass at a turtle
I hadn’t thought about my brother’s captive turtles in years, but they came to mind when CDC’s Public Health Law Program (PHLP) and National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases (NCEZID) began researching state laws directed at turtle-associated salmonellosis. As the attorney in charge of PHLP’s communications outreach, in cooperation with Aila Hoss and Don Benken, PHLP’s attorney subject matter experts, and the Office for State, Local, Tribal and Territorial Support’s communication team, I helped write our communications plan and identify the audiences who would most benefit from our research. Reading Ms. Hoss’ research and NCEZID’s background information about past turtle-associated salmonellosis, I suddenly remembered why my brother was discouraged from catching wild things (it’s dangerous and, in most states, illegal) and especially warned away from turtles. Turtles, particularly small turtles, can carry Salmonella—the bacteria that causes salmonellosis.

Salmonella causes an estimated one million illnesses in the United States every year, resulting in about 19,000 hospitalizations and 308 deaths. Most people infected with Salmonella develop diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps between 12 and 72 hours after exposure. The illness usually lasts four to seven days, and most people recover without treatment. In critical cases, the infection can spread from the intestines to the bloodstream and then to other body sites. In those cases, salmonellosis can cause death, unless the person is treated promptly with antibiotics. Elderly persons, infants, and those with impaired immune systems are more likely to get a severe illness, though those at highest risk for salmonellosis are children under age five.

wordsSmall turtles are often sold as pets for young children, which is a problem because small children might not wash their hands after handling turtles or items that have been touching the turtle or the turtle’s habitat. Also, small children might view turtles as toys and kiss, lick, or place the turtles in their mouths, as they might any other small object. In 2012, there were eight multi-state outbreaks of turtle-associated salmonellosis in the US and in Puerto Rico, resulting in 78 hospitalizations; 70% of those affected were children under age 10.

Federal law prohibits the sale of “viable turtle eggs and live turtles with a carapace length of less than 4 inches” (a standard deck of playing cards is about 3.5 inches long). Federal law allows for limited exceptions; turtles may be sold for “bona fide scientific, education, or exhibition purposes, other than use as pets.” In addition to this federal law, many states have also passed laws regulating the sale of turtles or have incorporated the federal law into their state codes by reference.

Although the federal law applies to all states, the preemption doctrine allows states to establish more stringent requirements than the federal law regarding the sale of turtles. Preemption issues are complex, but generally, if state requirements are less stringent, the federal law prevails. Some states select to enact their own laws to ensure that state resources can be used for enforcement, or if the federal standard changes.

PHLP and NCEZID have created several resources explaining turtle-associated salmonellosis, including a menu of each state’s laws  and an infographic explaining the trouble with tiny turtles. It is important to understand how illnesses like these occur and can be prevented. It is also important to recognize how law can be—and often is—used as a tool to improve public health. Take a peek under the proverbial shell and see how your individual state regulates turtle sales.

Looking back, I think my brother was pretty lucky not to get sick—other reptiles and amphibians can also carry Salmonella. Since his turtle-catching days, he has gone on to earn a degree in wildlife biology. Now he is much better informed about the hazards of interfering with wild animals. For the most part, he leaves the wild things to the wild.

Tiny Turtle infographic


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5 comments on “Tiny Turtle–Serious Health Threat”

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    Turtles can also carry other diseases. My newborn child contracted infant botulism from the turtles we kept as pets. It was the first case of type e infant botulism in Ireland and as a result the health service executive here made a recommendation the families with children under the age of 5 do not keep any reptiles at home.

    Twenty nine years ago, our son was hospitalized in serious condition and had lost a third of his body weight due to what we now know as an infectious disease called diantamebia fragilis. It was and still is a disease carried by small box turtles which I had purchased for our tank. He laid lethargic at Children’s Hospital for weeks under the care of the team from infectious disease who rallied together to diagnosis his condition. We were told it was a disease common to South America and a visit was paid to our home. The turtles were the cause. At the time my son was five. An orphan drug called iodaquinol was located in the San Francisco area and our pharmacist was able to expedite its arrival. All is well now but it was a frightening time in our families lives. Nothing has been done and to see this article almost thirty years later is a travesty.

    How very sad that the affects of simply playing with “a cute little turtle” could reek such havoc on small children. But, even sadder than that—– this information either was not known or it was thought not important enough to publicize.

    Turtles are causing diseases!? WHAT!? We as humans have to leave the wild to the wild?! WHAT!! Unfortunately many of these things are slightly overlooked by most people, but I have always believed in this state of mind. If you don’t know what it is or what it does, DO NOT TOUCH IT! Many parents will allow their kids to just go off and do whatever they want in order to gain some peace and quiet. I believe that because this is such a huge issue especially in rural areas, kids should be educated in what is around them and what they can encounter. If we educate we can prevent these type of issues from happening. This issue in the blog has made me want to make sure that when I have children or even when I am around my nieces and nephews to make sure they know what is right and what is wrong, because if they know what can hurt them, I am 100% sure that they will stray away from even getting close. This blog is definitely going to be emailed around my family members and friends in order to avoid having their kids in the hospital from these diseases and others; all when it can be prevented with some basic education. If parents cannot help their kids with this type of education there are many programs that are able to help. The National Wildlife Federation states: “National Wildlife Federation has worked to connect children and youth with nature for decades, inspiring children through Ranger Rick magazine, working with educators to get kids learning outdoors, and helping parents find new ways to engage their children outside.” We are not alone in this situation! GET HELP! PREVENT!

    Wild animals are meant to be left in the wild. Nowadays we have become so.comfortable with bringing the wild in our domesticated lives that we don’t stop to consider the threats they bring with them yes, turtltes are soooo cute, but after reading this insight I will look at them though a different perspective

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Page last reviewed: June 17, 2015
Page last updated: June 17, 2015