~ Heidi Moawad MD
Turtles are considered a relatively low maintenance pet due to their simple nutritional needs and their cleanliness when compared to most domestic pets. Yet, contact with turtles and most ‘household’ reptiles has been well known to cause salmonella infection, prompting regulatory controls over 30 years ago. Nevertheless, turtles, particularly small sized turtles, are not an uncommon household pet. And there are still reports of sporadic salmonella outbreaks associated with exposure to pet turtles.
Symptoms of Turtle Borne Salmonella Infection
The symptoms of turtle borne salmonella include the expected and typical symptoms of salmonella gastroenteritis infection, such as stomach upset, vomiting and diarrhea. The illness may be quite severe, however, as many reports of outbreaks describe hospitalization of about 1/3 to 1/2 of affected patients. In fact, a few incidents of turtle borne salmonella infection include development of sepsis and even death. While severe complications are not common, they have been reported frequently enough to point out that turtle borne salmonella infection is not always a benign, self-limited illness.
The infection is most often reported as caused by Salmonella Poona, Salmonella Paratyphi, Salmonella Pomona, or Salmonella Sandiego.
The treatment includes supportive care, hydration, and possibly antibiotics.
In general, the illness is more often described among very young children under the age of 7. Young children are more susceptible to the illness from turtle exposure for a number of reasons. Of course, very young children are more likely to enjoy touching and handling small turtles for a prolonged period of time. Additionally, younger children typically lack caution and are less prone to appropriate hand washing habits than adults or older children. And, of course, many young children do not hesitate to put their hands in their mouths or on their food after playing with a reptilian animal.
Interestingly, some turtle borne salmonella outbreaks involve a substantial number of patients who were not directly exposed to the turtles themselves, getting the illness after what seems to have been indirect contact. This raises an interesting question about whether the disproportionate reports of turtle borne salmonella illness among children under the age 7 may have to do with some type of age related susceptibility or lack of immunological defense among the very young population.
Because locale-specific outbreaks are described, it is possible that turtles coming from certain vendors or living in a common area may harbor the organism. There have been incidents in which bodies of water tested positive for the organism. However, this does not rule out the risk of sporadic infection.
Because young children are often affected and because of the documentation of indirect contact, turtle pet owners should stay updated on the latest guidelines regarding safety in caring for turtles.
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