Is it true that turtles carry salmonella? Unfortunately, just about all of them do. Here is what to do about it and how to protect yourself.
Do Turtles Carry Salmonella?
You might have heard or read once about the dangers posed by turtles and salmonella.
But how unsafe is it, what are the chances your turtle has it and what should you do if that’s the case?
The nitty gritty short-and-sweet answer is that the vast majority of turtles, both in the wild and in captivity, ARE carrying some form of salmonella either in their gut, or on their skin or shell.
But, there’s a little more to it.
Hopefully, this quick guide will clear everything up. Let’s start with what salmonella is.
The actual word itself, salmonella, refers to a bunch of bacteria that cause salmonellosis, or the infection that results from carrying it.
These bacteria live in the stomach and guts of infected animals, a few strains of which will make humans sick.
Unfortunately, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) salmonella affects around a million Americans every year, of which around 380 cases result in death.
What Causes Salmonella?
- Uncooked meat, seafood, and poultry.
- Unwashed vegetables.
- Lack of good kitchen hygiene.
- Wild and pet reptiles!
That’s right. Chances are, your cute little red-eared slider’s shell and outer skin is covered in salmonella bacteria. Fortunately for him, it’s completely harmless. But unfortunately not for us.
In fact, salmonella-infected turtles are so prevalent that the entire reason that the “4 Inch Law” was enacted was to limit the spread of salmonella outbreaks.
So why does salmonella get such bad press? What makes it so much different than other types of common bacteria?
For starters, anyone can get salmonella poisoning.
Salmonella Poisoning Symptoms
After being exposed to this nasty stuff, it will typically take between 6 and 72 hours for symptoms to start to appear. Symptoms such as:
- Stomach pain and/or vomiting
Salmonella is first and foremost an intestinal tract infection or something that causes gastroenteritis. Generally, you get it from eating unclean foods or touching unclean things and then transferring the bacteria to your mouth, where it enters your digestive system and starts to wreak all kinds of havoc.
Healthy, normal adults generally need a few days to get over a bout of salmonella poisoning, however for:
- Senior citizens
- Pregnant women
- People who have had their immune system lowered due to chemotherapy, cancer, diabetes, etc.
For these people, salmonella can be deadly.
If you or a loved one starts to come down with these symptoms, and you believe it could be due to salmonella poisoning, you should call your doctor immediately or better yet, go for a visit.
Chances are, you or your loved one will get over it, however, not everyone is so lucky. In 2007 a 4-week old baby died due to salmonella poisoning, which was later linked to a small turtle that the parents owned through DNA matching.
Can You Get Salmonella From Pet Turtles?
Here’s the thing:
You don’t need to own a turtle or to have even touched a turtle in order to contract salmonella from one; you merely need to have contact with something that has.
Salmonella can live on the surfaces of objects such as:
- Kitchen sinks
And it can live for quite some time. And it can live there not just because your turtle touched it, but because you touched your turtle, and then you touched your counter-top. Or someone else did.
In fact, according to a study published in the journal Pediatrics way back in 2006, researchers found that mere exposure to salmonella was one of the biggest determiners in whether or not an infant will get salmonella poisoning.
This is because, as I showed above, the infant doesn’t need to actually handle or touch the turtle, just be exposed to something else that has, such as a family member cleaning out the turtle’s tank and then holding him or her.
How Widespread Is Salmonella Poisoning?
According to the CDC, there are about 1.2 million cases of salmonella poisoning each year in the United States. Of those, roughly 23,000 have salmonella poisoning so severe that they need to go to the hospital. And of those, roughly 450 die.
But those numbers just refer to general salmonella cases. What about cases involving turtles?
Between 2006 and 2014, there were 15 reported salmonella outbreaks that were traced to turtles. Of these, 156 people had to be hospitalized, with 1 death (the infant which I referred to earlier).
Laboratory findings were able to determine and link the outbreaks of salmonella poisoning in humans to contact with small turtles and their environments.
More recently, there were another 4 outbreaks reported between January of 2015 and April of 2016, with 38 people hospitalized and no deaths reported. The vast majority of those hospitalized (41%) were children under the age of 5.
So, what are the chances that you contract salmonella?
The unfortunate reality is, is that if you have a pet turtle, or are exposed to one, you are increasing your risk of contracting salmonella poisoning. This is especially true if you have young children or senior citizens living in your home.
It is imperative that you practice good hygiene and do everything you can in order to diminish these risks.
How Do I Make Sure My Turtle Doesn’t Have Salmonella?
I have some bad news for you.
There really is no way to tell if your turtle has salmonella.
Not unless you want to don a white lab coat and start doing some testing that is.
Even if your turtle looks spotless, healthy and totally clean, chances are, it is carrying it.
Salmonella bacteria is incredibly prevalent not just in the wild, but in lots and lots of other animal species. It is typically stored in the gastrointestinal tracts of animals, but can also reside on their skin surface as well.
What Animals Have Salmonella?
The reason why reptiles and turtles specifically are listed by the CDC as salmonella hazards and dogs aren’t, is because reptiles, in general, carry various salmonella strains with a very high degree of frequency.
The CDC estimates that as many as 90% of all reptiles have at least one strain of salmonella inside their gut or outside on their skin.
Because so many reptiles and turtles, in particular, have it naturally, you are just safer to ASSUME that your turtle already has it.
How Can Turtles Prevent Salmonella?
Remember when I told you that I had some bad news and that chances are, your turtle probably already has salmonella?
Now you’re probably thinking, “Well gee if that’s the case, how can I get rid of it?”
Well, I’ve got some worse news for you.
There isn’t any fool-proof, safe method to completely get rid of salmonella in your turtles. You just can’t.
In fact, anyone who is telling (or selling) you a turtle that is claimed to be “salmonella-free” is lying.
A while back there was a pet store on the American west-coast that claimed to be able to produce “certified salmonella-free turtles.”
They did this by first producing a salmonella-free egg, and thus, the turtle that hatched from it must therefore by extension be, salmonella-free itself.
Next, they treated the turtle eggs with a disinfectant, and then further cleaned them by dipping them in some type of antibacterial solution. These individuals then used a pressure-container to “push” the antibacterial solution into the egg, which would kill the salmonella.
Turtle Salmonella Test
The method itself is referred to as the “Siebeling Method“, after the name of the scientist upon which the research is based.
There are 2 major, major flaws with this method, however.
- Turtles often only shed or harbor salmonella intermittently or on an on-again-off-again basis
- It is unable to stop turtles from contracting salmonella in the future
False-negative tests are extremely common in turtles, as they are constantly shedding bacteria in their feces.
And even if this method was able to consistently produce salmonella-free turtles, it would do little to stop them from contracting it in the future, as they are natural carriers of it and, unless they were totally isolated, would probably contract it from other turtles.
So, if you can’t really get rid of salmonella in your turtles, what should you do?
- Handle them properly.
- Enforce strict hygiene practices.
How To Reduce Salmonella Poisoning
In order to prevent the spread of salmonella to you and other people who live or come into your house, you really need to be on top of your game here.
Here are the rules that I follow that I would strongly suggest for you as well:
- Children under the age of 5 are NEVER allowed to touch your turtles. Under no circumstances!
- Senior citizens are NEVER allowed to touch your turtles. Under no circumstances!
- ANY TIME you touch your turtle, you must immediately thoroughly wash your hands with a good antibacterial soap afterward.
- ANY TIME you come into contact with your turtle’s TANK, you must immediately thoroughly wash your hands with a good antibacterial soap.
- DO NOT let your turtle roam free on your carpet, floor or anywhere else if you have young children in your house. EVER.
- Your turtles and any equipment that you use for them should NEVER enter your kitchen. EVER.
- When you clean your turtle’s tank or habitat, clean it outside using disposable gloves. If you have to clean it inside, clean it inside a tank that is solely dedicated to this job and this job only. Cross-contamination is your nemesis here!
- Wash any clothes that have had contact with your turtles.
- Never kiss your turtle.
These may sound strict and a bit harsh, but I follow them for a reason. In fact, the chances of young children in particular contracting salmonella are so great that the CDC advises people to simply keep them out of your home if you have children under the age of 5.
As I noted above, your biggest enemy is going to be cross-contamination.
This happens when you touch your turtle, get the salmonella on your hand, and then touch your kitchen counter-top. The salmonella then spreads to the kitchen counter-top, where someone else touches it who then touches their mouth.
Ideally, you should keep your turtle tank or habitat in a room or location that isn’t often used by people.
Follow these rules and the threat of salmonella poisoning will be enormously mitigated.
- 90% of turtles are estimated to be natural carriers of salmonella in some way.
- Just assume that your pet turtle has it.
- You cannot truly get rid of it.
- The best way to lower the chances of you or a loved one contracting salmonella is by using good hygiene practices and being extremely strict about them!