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CDC warns not to 'kiss or cuddle your turtle' as salmonella outbreak spreads to 11 states

The outbreak has sickened at least 26 people in 11 states so far.

August 23, 2023, 3:03 AM

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned people to not “kiss or cuddle your turtle” after a salmonella outbreak linked to small turtles has sickened at least 26 people across 11 states.

Public health officials announced that they are investigating a “multistate outbreak” of salmonella linked to small turtles after dozens of people have fallen ill in recent months, according to the CDC.

A federal law bans the sale and distribution of turtles with shells less than 4 inches long as pets because they have caused many illnesses, especially in young children, the CDC said.

“Despite the ban, these turtles can sometimes be found illegally online and at stores, flea markets, and roadside stands,” continued the CDC. “Pet turtles of any size can carry Salmonella germs in their droppings even if they look healthy and clean. These germs can easily spread to their bodies, tank water, and anything in the area where they live and roam. You can get sick from touching a turtle or anything in its environment and then touching your mouth or food with unwashed hands and swallowing Salmonella germs.”

Although any turtle can carry salmonella germs, turtles with shells less than four inches long are a known source of illness, officials said.

Public health officials confirmed that there have been at least 26 known victims from this outbreak across 11 states with nine hospitalizations and no deaths, so far.

PHOTO: The Centers for Disease Control's Tom Harkin Global Communications Center is pictured in Atlanta in this undated image.
The Centers for Disease Control's Tom Harkin Global Communications Center is pictured in Atlanta in this undated image.

Symptoms of salmonella can start anywhere from six hours to six days after ingesting the bacteria and people suffering from it can experience diarrhea, fever, and stomach cramps, officials said.

While most people recover without treatment after four to seven days, some people -- most often children younger than 5-years-old, adults over the age of 65, or those with weakened immune systems -- may have a more severe experience with the illness and require medical attention or even hospitalization.

There are actions that you can take to limit potential exposure if you are thinking of getting a pet turtle, have one already or are exposed to one.

Only buy turtles with shells longer than four inches and buy them from a reputable pet store, the CDC warns, since “reputable pet stores do not sell turtles with shells less than 4 inches long.”

“Always wash hands thoroughly with soap and water right after touching or feeding your turtle and after touching or cleaning the area where it lives and roams. Adults should make sure young children are washing their hands properly,” the CDC added.

“Don’t kiss or snuggle your turtle, and don’t eat or drink around it,” officials warn. “This can spread Salmonella germs to your mouth and make you sick. Keep your turtle out of your kitchen and other areas where you eat, store, or prepare food.”

One thing you should not do is release your turtle outside.

“Call your local reptile rescue, animal shelter, or pet store about options for safely rehoming your turtle,” the CDC said in their statement announcing the outbreak. “Releasing pets into the wild can disrupt wildlife and may be prohibited by law in certain states.”

Ultimately, do your best to keep things clean and be sure to call your healthcare provider right away if any symptoms become severe.

For more information about salmonella, see the CDC’s salmonella questions and answers page.