34 years later, turtles are STILL not great children’s pets (or Christmas gifts)

This Christmas, consider giving a Barbie to a little girl or some sort of Pokémon a little boy. I’m not really a fan of either (anymore), but they probably won’t leave you infected with a zoonotic bacterium. One of the veterinary students at K-State sent out an email earlier this week telling us about her neighbors that rescued some turtle eggs from a construction site and were successful with having them hatch. It was also included in the email that they were red-eared sliders between 2.5-3 inches, and “just think a perfect free gift for a kid you know.”

My immediate thought was Salmonellosis,a bacterium naturally carried by turtles and intermittently shed. Turtle owners (especially kids) are at risk for developing the infection if they don’t practice proper hand-washing techniques or if the turtle’s area isn’t kept separate from the rest of the house. Back in the 70s, Salmonella infections were on the rise, and quite a bit of this has to do with the increasing popularity of pet turtles.

In 1975, The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) response to these Salmonellosis outbreaks was to ban commercial distribution of turtles less than 4 inches in length. In 1976, the Centers of Disease Control and Infectious Diseases (CDC) stated that the 1975 federal prohibition of the sale of small turtles in the United States had prevented an estimated 100,000 cases of turtle-associated Salmonellosis in children aged 1–9 years in 1976.  The law has restricted turtle-sellers to wait longer before they sell their baby turtles, and consequently the turtles cost more, which in turn tends to discourage impulse buyers.

I’m glad to see that laws are in place to (try to) protect children from reptile-associated Salmonellosis.  Unfortunately, it still remains an issue today. Children continue to acquire (and even die from) reptile-associated Salmonella. Sometimes the infections come from improper hand washing after handling a turtle, parents cross-contaminating, or the turtle is washed/kept in an area that the rest of the family uses frequently (bathroom sink).

I’ve contacted the vet student who sent me the original email, but she says she has spoken to one of the veterinarians associated with Kansas State who said that unless an individual has 3 or greater turtles there wasn’t a need for a license to give them away. I chatted with the vet myself, and he says that two limiting factors of owning a turtle are the long life span and meeting the complex dietary needs. We both agreed that turtles aren’t the best pet for a young child and that Salmonellosis was the primary zoonotic pathogen connected to turtles.

I guess these turtles will go to someone’s home regardless; here’s hoping there aren’t any young children or other immunocompromised individuals in the house and that the owners are hygienic in their turtle-habits.