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Parents beware: Pet turtles carry risk of salmonella

As the most recent Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie dominates the box office, young fans are no doubt clamoring for plastic swords, bandannas and (foam) throwing stars.

Some, perhaps many, also will want a turtle. A real pet turtle.

While these creatures may be cute and look like easy family pets, experts warn that turtles require a surprising amount of care and they carry harmful germs that can make people sick. The group American Tortoise Rescue is asking parents to fight the temptation to get their children real turtles after watching the movie.

An open letter from the California nonprofit said that after the first TMNT movie was released in 1990, hundreds of thousands of live turtles became pets. Most of them were water turtles called red-eared sliders. Children quickly lost interest. The organization believes as many as 90 percent of these turtles were dumped into rivers, lakes or in the trash, flushed down toilets or sent to turtle rescue organizations.

The bigger problem, the group says, is turtles carry salmonella. People can get salmonella from contact with a pet turtle or its environment. Salmonella can cause serious, even life-threatening, infections in people even though the bacteria doesn't make turtles sick.

Hundreds of people have become ill in salmonella outbreaks linked to small turtles, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most victims are children younger than 5. From May 2011 to May 2013, the CDC received reports of 391 salmonella-related illnesses in 40 states and the District of Columbia; most of those ill were children. There were no deaths, but 63 needed to be hospitalized.

The investigation showed that shortly before most of the people became ill, they were exposed to a turtle by touching, feeding, cleaning the habitat or changing the water in the tank.

The CDC urges families with children younger than 5 to avoid keeping reptiles or amphibians as pets, noting kids' immune systems are still developing and they are more likely to put their fingers in their mouths. The American Tortoise Rescue does not recommend live turtles or tortoises for children younger than 13, in part because the organization says kids lose interest almost immediately.

Salmonella concerns

How do people get salmonella infections from turtles and other reptiles (and amphibians)?

Reptiles and amphibians might have salmonella germs on their bodies even when they appear healthy and clean. The germs can get on cages, aquariums, terrariums or the water that reptiles and amphibians live or swim in, and other containers that house them. Anything that reptiles and amphibians touch should be considered possibly contaminated with salmonella. When you touch reptiles and amphibians, the germs can get on your hands or clothing, and those germs can easily spread.

How do I reduce the risk of salmonella infection from reptiles and amphibians?

Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water immediately after touching a reptile or amphibian, or anything in the area where they live and roam. Use hand sanitizer if soap and water are not readily available. Adults should always supervise hand-washing for young children. Keep reptiles and amphibians out of homes with children younger than 5 or people with weakened immune systems. Habitats and their contents should be carefully cleaned outside the home. Use disposable gloves when cleaning, and do not dispose of water in sinks used for food preparation or for obtaining drinking water. Wash any clothing the reptile or amphibian might have touched. Use soap or a disinfectant to thoroughly clean any surfaces that have been in contact with reptiles or amphibians.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Parents beware: Pet turtles carry risk of salmonella 08/25/14 [Last modified: Monday, August 25, 2014 3:14pm]

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