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A salmonella outbreak linked to small turtles prompts warning from the CDC

Small turtles have a history of being linked to similar outbreaks, as recently as last year.

Small turtles have been linked to a wave of salmonella infections across the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Thursday.

According to the report, at least 15 cases of salmonella were reported across 11 states, and could be traced to turtles with shells smaller than four inches. The outbreak has resulted in 5 hospitalizations thus far.

Salmonella is a bacteria that typically attacks the intestinal tract. Though it is most common for humans to become infected with salmonella via contaminated food or water, birds and reptiles are known to transmit salmonella to humans as well, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The bacteria can be present in the droppings of small turtles, which can easily be transferred to their tank water, their bodies, or any surface the turtles come into contact with, according to the CDC.

In September 2021, the CDC reported a similar salmonella outbreak originating from  small turtles. That outbreak caused 87 infections, 32 hospitalizations, and one death. In 2012, NBC News reported on a turtle-related salmonella outbreak that caused 66 infections. Another outbreak caused 103 sicknesses in 2007.

The Humane Society has has issued its own warnings against getting too comfortable with these mostly docile creatures. “A small turtle may seem harmless, giving parents a false sense that they’re a safe pet for children," the organization has said. "But the disease risk is so great that selling small turtles is illegal in the United States.”

Indeed, a regulation by the Food and Drug Administration dating back to 1975 mandates that turtles and turtle eggs whose shells are not longer than four inches cannot be sold or otherwise commercially distributed in the U.S.

Despite the illegality of selling small turtles, these creatures are still often found in stores both online and in-person, as well as at flea markets and roadside stands, the CDC noted.

The agency said three of the salmonella cases connected to the current outbreak involve people who bought turtles from a website called myturtlestore.com, which sells turtles at prices ranging from $20 to $1,000. The website has not yet responded to a request for comment.

According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of salmonella infection include diarrhea, vomiting, fever, headache, and dehydration. Symptoms usually appear within three days of exposure. Most people infected with salmonella will recover within a week without treatment, but the illness can in some cases be fatal. Each year, salmonella causes 1.35 million infections and over 400 deaths in the U.S., the CDC estimates.

The CDC is encouraging turtle owners to wash their hands after handling turtles or their tank water to avoid possible infection. Turtle owners are further encouraged to avoid kissing or snuggling their turtles.