Pet turtles are consistently among the most popular reptiles and amphibians—despite laws closely regulating the trade in small turtles and serious human health concerns about the animals.
Turtles can carry salmonella bacteria on their shells, and when curious children touch them, the bacteria can transfer to the child’s hands. Salmonella bacteria can cause diarrhea, fever, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, and headaches. Symptoms typically appearing between six and 72 hours after contact. Most of these cases resolve in about a week, but severe cases can be cause for hospitalization among young children.
Because salmonella can survive on surfaces such as countertops, bare floors, and carpets, it makes it harder to contain and eliminate the bacteria. One of the best ways to prevent salmonella exposure is through thorough hand-washing after contact with turtles, or their habitat. This helps eliminate the salmonella bacteria.
Because of these concerns, in 1975, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) passed a regulation making it illegal to sell viable turtle eggs or live turtles with a shell length of less than four inches in the United States. This position is supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which advises that children under age 5 should have no direct contact with reptiles and amphibians.
Following the ban imposed by the FDA, turtle-related illnesses dropped sharply; however, numbers are beginning to grow once again. This is attributed to illegal turtle sales from street vendors, or sellers at flea markets, fairs, and carnivals. If you see 1-inch turtles for sale anywhere, know that these turtles are illegal and should not be purchased.
Reviewed by Dr. Eva Benmeleh, September 2020
- Turtles can carry salmonella bacteria, which can be transferred to children when they handle the turtles.
- Symptoms of salmonella include: vomiting, diarrhea, nausea and fever and can be severe.
- The best way to remove salmonella bacteria is to thoroughly wash hands after exposure or handling of turtles or their habitats.
- Children under age 5 should not handle turtles.