Turtles Look Cute But Are Dangerous to Pregnant Women and Young Children

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Turtle pregnant child

Most pregnant women know that some pets can be a source of health problems. For example, pregnant women should specifically avoid changing the cat litter. But other animals also pose threats to pregnant women and young children. Some of these animals are not obvious, and one that definitely should be avoided is the small turtle.

A Serious Disease

Small turtles, those with a shell length of less than 4 inches, can be as source of Salmonella infections in humans. There are many different species of the Salmonella bacteria. The illness cause by Salmonella from turtles is usually a gastrointestinal illness marked by:

  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal cramps and tenderness
  • Fever

However, the germ can invade other parts of the body and cause blood infections, bone infections, and meningitis. Children less than 5 years old, especially those less than 6 months, are more at risk of developing one of these more serious, invasive infections.1,2

Salmonellosis, or infection caused by Salmonella, is common. Every year in the U.S., these germs cause about 1.2 million illnesses in humans, 23,000 hospitalizations, and 450 deaths.3

At the peak ownership of these small turtles in the early 1970s, approximately 15 million turtle hatchlings were sold in the U.S., and 4% of all households in the country owned at least one pet turtle.  These turtles accounted for 14% of all cases of human salmonellosis.3

Against the Law

In 1975, in an effort to reduce the number of illnesses caused by Salmonella, the Food and Drug Administration banned the sale and distribution of turtles with a shell length of <4 inches in the U.S. After this ban, only 6% of Salmonella infections in the country were attributed to reptile and amphibian exposure. The ban is credited with preventing 100,000 infections in children less than 10 years old each year.1,3

But lately, despite the ban remaining in place, the percentage of households owning at least one pet turtle has doubled, and there have been outbreaks of Salmonella infections across the country.1,3

From 2006 to 2014, there were 15 multistate turtle-associated salmonellosis outbreaks reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These outbreaks accounted for 921 illnesses, 156 hospitalizations, and the death of a 3½-week-old infant. The median age of affected patients in all outbreaks was less than 10 years old, demonstrating that children are most at risk for turtle-associated salmonellosis.3

Upon further investigation of these cases, most turtles were obtained from untraceable sources, such as street vendors, flea markets, or received as gifts. Only 13% of the turtles were bought at a pet store.1

Avoid Small Turtles . . . And These Other Reptiles

So the lesson is: avoid small turtles if you are pregnant or have children in the home. If you get one as a gift, politely decline it.

But small turtles aren’t the only dangerous pets that carry Salmonella. Other reptiles that have been linked to salmonellosis include:2

  • Iguanas
  • Bearded dragons
  • Snakes
  • Chameleons
  • Geckos

Pets offer lots of benefits, but avoid little turtles and the others on this list.

References:

  1. Walters MS, Simmons L, Anderson TC, et al. Outbreaks of Salmonellosis From Small Turtles. Pediatrics. 2016 Jan;137 (1).
  2. Meyer Sauteur PM, Relly C, Hug M, Wittenbrink MM, Berger C. Risk factors for invasive reptile-associated salmonellosis in children. Vector Borne Zoonotic Dis. 2013 Jun;13 (6):419-21.
  3. Bosch S, Tauxe RV, Behravesh CB. Turtle-Associated Salmonellosis, United States, 2006-2014. Emerg Infect Dis. 2016 Jul;22 (7):1149-55.
Ruben Rucoba
Dr. Rucoba has over 25 years of experience as a primary care pediatrician after completing medical school at the University of California, San Francisco. His clinical areas of expertise include caring for children with special health care needs and assisting families with international adoption. He has been a freelance medical writer since 2010, writing for health websites, continuing medical education providers, and various print outlets. He currently works at Wheaton Pediatrics in the suburbs of Chicago, where he lives with his wife and four daughters, including a set of twins.

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