Don't even think about petting that turtle. If a pet turtle shows up at your home, do not take him in. He is considered armed and dangerous. No joke.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of Salmonella cases linked to tiny breeds of the reptile (it's not an amphibian!) is on the rise. As of last week, there are six current outbreaks of the bacteria-borne illness directly linked to exposure to the illegal contraband. Yes pet turtles are illegal.
Farm pulls fruit after salmonella scare
Ever since 1975, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has placed a nationwide ban on sales of the amphibians-with shells 4 inches or smaller. After a spike in Salmonella-related sicknesses, the little guys were found to be breeders of the bacteria.
Here's how it happens: They release the bacteria when they relieve themselves (that's a fancy way of saying turtle poop). Remnants of the Salmonella strain live on their shells and get transferred to human hands and mouths easily.
"Young children are ingenious in constructing ways to infect themselves," says Joseph C. Paige, D.V.M., a Consumer Safety Officer in the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine, in a statement to press. "They put the small turtles in their mouths or, more often, they touch the turtles or dangle their fingers in the turtle tank water and then put their hands in their mouths. Also, sometimes the tanks and reptile paraphernalia are cleaned in the kitchen sink, and food and eating utensils get cross-contaminated."
The latest CDC survey found turtle-related outbreaks in 30 states.
Even just letting the turtles run free in the house can spread the disease with serious consequences.
In 2007, a 3-week-old baby died after exposure to a pet turtle. More recently, 196 people (up from 168 in July) have been sickened after the six outbreaks were unleashed. As of last month, 36 of those sickened were hospitalized.
Because of their weakened immune systems, kids are particularly susceptible to the bacteria's side effects -which in rare cases can be deadly. The latest reports from the CDC estimate 63% of those recently sickened are 10 years of age or younger, and 29% are under a year old.
Spotting the warning signs of Salmonella
"All reptiles and amphibians are commonly contaminated with Salmonella," says Paige. "But it is the small turtles that most often are put in contact with young children, where consequences of infection are likely to be severe."
Prior exposure to the turtle doesn't mean you're in the clear. At least 72% of those exposed to the illness have lived with their pets for a while.
The steady increase in turtle-related illnesses since 2006 has prompted a crackdown on the illegal sale of the tiny pets. Last month, cops in Maryland busted two vendors, one at a pet store, the other at a makeshift vending station at Six Flags Great Adventure.
"We've really seen a big influx of these turtles for sale," said Mike Lathroum, a senior officer with the Maryland Natural Resources Police, told the Washington Post. "I don't know why. . . We've not been able to determine the source."
The turtles are sometimes given away for free -with purchase of habitats-in order to bypass the law. You'd think that the FDA, the CDC and police task forces could catch up with the slowest creature known to man. But if we've learned anything from childhood fables, it's that those sluggish little guys are persistent.