The CDC is investigating a salmonella outbreak linked to small turtles that is sickening people, most of them children, in nearly a dozen states.
So far, 15 people have been infected with the salmonella strain linked to the turtles, all of which have shells longer than 4 inches as required by federal law. The CDC acknowledges, as is the case with most outbreaks, whether viral like COVID or bacterial like salmonella, that the true number of sick people is likely higher than reported.
Some people recover from salmonella-related infections without medical care and others may never be tested, fueling the undercount. In this particular case, the CDC says most people reported buying the small turtles online.
Half of them bought the turtles from a particular website, despite a federal law banning sales of small turtles as pets. Those with shells shorter than 4 inches have been linked to salmonella outbreaks in the past, the health agency says, and even though they're not supposed to be sold you might sometimes see them at flea markets, roadside stands or online shops.
The affected states include New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Virginia, Iowa, South Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Tennessee, Kansas and Washington. States not currently listed on the map may have unreported cases as well.
Pet turtles of any size can carry Salmonella germs in their droppings even if the reptiles look clean and healthy, the CDC says. Those germs can easily spread to their bodies, tank water and anything in the area where they live and roam.
If you touch a turtle or anything else in its environment, then touch your mouth or food with unwashed hands you might end up swallowing Salmonella germs. So what should you do to stay safe?
The CDC offers the following tips:
- Only buy turtles with shells longer than 4 inches and buy them from reputable pet stores or rescues
- Always wash your hands after touching, feeding, or caring for your turtle. Adults should make sure young children are washing their hands properly
- Don’t toss your turtle if you decide you no longer want it. Reach out to your local pet store or reptile rescue
- Pick the right pet for your family. Pet turtles are not recommended for children younger than 5, adults aged 65 and older, and people with weakened immune systems as they are more likely to get a serious illness from germs that turtles can carry.
What to Know About Salmonella
Salmonella is a bacteria that lives in the intestines of people and animals — causing more than 1 million foodborne illnesses in the U.S. every year.
Symptoms include diarrhea, fever higher than 102 degrees Fahrenheit, stomach cramps, excessive vomiting and signs of dehydration. Symptoms can start six hours and up to six days after ingesting the bacteria.
In most cases, people recover without medical care after four to seven days. Some people – especially children younger than 5 years old, adults 65 years and older, and people with weakened immune systems – may experience more severe illnesses that require medical treatment or hospitalization.
Every year, salmonella causes about 1.35 million illnesses, 26,500 hospitalizations, and 420 deaths in the United States, according to the CDC.
To avoid getting sick with salmonella, the CDC recommends four safety measures when preparing food: washing hands, utensils and surfaces, separating raw food, using a food thermometer and refrigerating perishables within two hours.
Check out the CDC's salmonella Q&A page for more information.