I grew up on farm. From a young age, I had a penchant for animals. I believed, and still do that most animals can be made into pets. I’d bore you to death if I named them all. We of course had dogs and cats, but we also had rabbits and guinea pigs as well. Then there were the non-traditional pets. There was Joy our Jersey who we milked, but would let my brother and I ride her like a horse. We had a capon named Cookie who was very friendly and our hand feeding was likely the reason for him having a dressed weight of 13.5lbs. Then there were my various horses, but particularly Wally who I competitively show jumped under the name “The Other Man” who I used to play tag with in the field. Do you see a pattern with all of my pets? They were soft and cuddly.
My definition of a pet is just that – soft and cuddly. Perhaps not in the curl-up-in-your-lap kind of way, but you can certainly hug a cow or horse! So when I hear of people with pet turtles I wonder where the cuddling enjoyment in that is! I also probably have a bias towards them because I know they have been the root cause of more than one outbreak associated with Salmonella; and they apparently have caused yet another. The two outbreaks in question is on-going and dates back to January 22nd of this year. There are 2 strains of Salmonella involved (S. Sandiego and S. Poona) which as sickened 51 people and hospitalizing 15 from 16 different states. Fifty percent (50%) of those ill were children 5 yrs old or younger.
The CDC warns, and rightly so, that ALL turtles regardless of size can carry Salmonella even if they look clean and healthy. Diligent hand hygiene is needed and when cleaning their tanks the areas should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected afterwards. Presently, the CDC believes the outbreak will continue at a low level for the next several months due to the fact that consumers may not be aware of the risk of Salmonella infection and also due to the fact that small turtles, when cared for properly, can have a long life expectancy.
The investigation has been a collaborative process with members from the CDC, Public Health, Veterinary, Agriculture and Wildlife officials from the various states working together along with the FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine. Of the people interviewed as part of the outbreak investigation, 59% confirmed contact with small turtles or their environments. 80% of the ill people indicated contact with small turtles that were purchased from street vendors or received as gifts.
This is a great reminder of the concept of One Health - People, Animals (e.g. pets) and the Planet are all connected. I hope the lessons learned from this is that while cute, turtles may not make the best pets unless there is a responsible care taker who understands the importance of diligent hand hygiene and environmental surface disinfection. Additionally, if we allow young children to touch or handle turtles it's important to be vigilant about NOT letting them put their hands into their mouths until AFTER their hands have been washed!
For me – I think I’ll keep to my “it must be cuddly” definition of a pet. It’s not that cuddly equates to a lack of diseases that may make me sick. It’s just that it has served me well so far, and as the adage goes, if it’s not broke don’t fix it!