Michael F. Easley

The Great Seal of the State of North Carolina Dempsey Benton

North Carolina
Department of Health and Human Services

For Release: IMMEDIATE
Date: December 21, 2007

  Contact: David Bergmire-Sweat
919 715 4818

Turtles for Christmas? Not a Good Idea

RALEIGH – Public health officials are reminding parents not to buy small pet turtles as Christmas presents for children. The warning comes after an investigation into a cluster of North Carolina children who were infected with salmonellosis after handling pet turtles.

“If you’re looking for a Christmas present, a pet turtle isn’t the best choice,” said  David Bergmire-Sweat. “There is a documented risk of Salmonella infection with turtles, particularly baby turtles. That risk has been underlined by this recent cluster.”

The North Carolina Division of Public Health and the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) investigated the cluster of five cases – four in North Carolina (Burke, Lincoln, Union and Montgomery counties) and one in South Carolina (York County).  Four of the children had positive cultures for salmonella. The fifth did not have a positive culture but was sick and had contact with a confirmed case.  All five children have recovered, although one was hospitalized with kidney failure as a result of the infection. The children all got sick this past summer.

Veterinarians recently tested the Union County child’s pet turtle cage; it tested positive for the same strain of Salmonella that was responsible for the outbreak.

Salmonellosis is an intestinal infection caused by the Salmonella bacteria.  Symptoms include diarrhea, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, fever and headache. People get sick within six to 72 hours after exposure to Salmonella. They are generally sick for two to seven days. The risk of Salmonella infection is highest for infants and children, seniors, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems.

Salmonella is a naturally occurring bacteria in turtles and other reptiles.  Turtles contaminated with Salmonella don’t appear to be sick. Although turtles of any size can be contaminated with Salmonella, small turtles pose a particular risk as they are more likely to be handled by children. Anyone who handles a turtle of any kind or size should always wash their hands thoroughly afterward to prevent Salmonella infection.

The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) banned the sale of turtles with shells smaller than four inches in diameter in 1975 after the link between Salmonella and handling the small turtles was documented. Unfortunately, many people are unaware of the ban and people can still find baby turtles for sale occasionally in stores as well as through vendors selling them on the internet.  The FDA estimates that the ban has prevented about 100,000 cases of salmonellosis annually, but according to the FDA there has been an increase in the sale of the small turtles in recent years. The FDA is responsible for enforcing the ban on small turtle sales.



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Debbie Crane