Pet Turtles Linked to Salmonella Outbreaks, CDC Finds

Majority of pet owners are unaware of the infection risk.

— -- Even if your pet turtle is not teenaged, a mutant, and living in a sewer hideout, it may still be dangerous in a very real way.

The report, published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, also showed a parallel rise in the popularity of these pet turtles in that time period. The 15 outbreaks infected a total of 921 people -- mostly children under the age of 10 -- and led to 156 hospitalizations, as well as the death of one infant.

Salmonella infections typically cause fevers, vomiting, abdominal cramps and diarrhea, but can cause more severe illness, particularly in younger children and people with weakened immune systems.

“We are very concerned about the public health risk of turtles,” Dr. Casey Barton Behravesh, a veterinary epidemiologist at the CDC and one of the authors of the study, told ABC News. “One of the biggest challenges is that people are not aware that turtles can carry germs that can make people sick, especially turtles that look perfectly healthy and clean.”

Despite the fact that turtles naturally harbor salmonella bacteria in their guts, turtles are viewed as inexpensive and safe pets -- 85 percent of turtle owners interviewed in these recent outbreaks were unaware of the infection risk.

The risk of salmonella infection is particularly high for small or baby turtles whose shells are shorter than 4 inches, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The small size may make them attractive pets, but also makes owners more likely to let the turtles roam across kitchen counters, or clean the turtle habitats in the kitchen sink, which can spread the bacteria to food-preparation surfaces. Given this risk, the FDA banned sale and distribution of these small turtles in 1975.

However, the ban is difficult to enforce, as many turtles are purchased through small, untraceable vendors, such as flea markets and roadside vendors, the study notes. In fact, 88 percent of the turtles involved in these recent outbreaks were smaller than the allowed limit.

Dr. Frank Esper, an infectious diseases specialist at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, said he was not surprised by these findings, and said that the CDC study is important in contributing to our public awareness of this hidden infection risk.

“We have to increase the public understanding of the risks of salmonella with turtles,” Esper said, emphasizing the importance of decreasing risky behaviors that can lead to transmission of infection.

“Turtles are great, turtles are a lot of fun,” he said. “People just have to remember to wash their hands after handling the turtles and be safe.”

Dr. Jennifer Yui is a resident in internal medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. She is currently a resident in the ABC News Medical Unit.