Loving small pet turtles has been linked to a multistate salmonella outbreak that has so far hospitalized nine people and made at least 26 people sick.

Now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is telling adults to warn their kids not to cuddle or kiss the small reptiles, as that can lead to the illness. Even clean, healthy pet turtles can carry the salmonella bacteria, the public health agency says.

The outbreak investigation is ongoing.

So far, cases of salmonella-related illness linked to turtles have been reported in California, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and West Virginia.

Per The Wall Street Journal, “Tennessee had six cases, the most of any of the states with reported infections linked to this outbreak. Pennsylvania had four infections and New York had three. More than 30% of those infected in this outbreak are under the age of 5 years old, according to the CDC.”

“Like with most outbreaks, the actual number of cases is likely higher than those recorded by health officials, as many people recover at home without testing and it generally takes three to four weeks to determine if a sick person is part of an outbreak,” as USA Today reported.

The CDC notes that the sale and distribution of small turtles with shells less than four inches is banned because they cause a lot of illness and young kids are especially vulnerable. But those tiny turtles are still sometimes found online, in stores, at flea markets and at roadside stands.

Any turtle, however, can carry salmonella in its droppings. And the germs are easy to spread to their bodies, their tanks and their environment. Touching salmonella-exposed anything and then touching your mouth or food can lead to illness that can be severe.

The report notes that three groups of people should not ever have pet turtles: Kids younger than 5, adults older than 64 and those with compromised immune systems. They are most at risk of serious illness.

Salmonella symptoms

Salmonella bacteria cause gastric distress, including diarrhea and stomach pain. People often develop a fever. The symptoms, per the CDC, start between six hours and six days after swallowing the salmonella bacteria. It usually resolves within four days to a week without medical intervention. Severe symptoms that require medical attention, per the CDC, include:

  • Diarrhea and fever above 102 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Diarrhea that lasts several days and doesn’t taper off.
  • Bloody stool.
  • Vomiting that prevents retaining fluids.
  • Any sign of dehydration, including diminished urination, dry mouth and throat and dizziness when you stand.

The New York Times cited statistics showing that salmonella causes about 1.35 million illnesses, 26,500 hospitalizations and 420 deaths in the United States each year.

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Keeping safe

Don’t kiss or cuddle your pet turtle, or eat food around it, either. After playing with a turtle or cleaning its habitat, wash your hands — and use soap, the health agency says.

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Pet owners are counseled to keep a tub, sponge and similar items that are used exclusively for turtle care. They still must be cleaned thoroughly after use. If you use a sink to clean items, be certain the area is cleaned and disinfected thoroughly and immediately.

Folks who decide they no longer want a turtle need to find a reputable way to place it in a new home. Never release it into the wild, which “can disrupt wildlife and may be prohibited by law in certain states,” the CDC reports.

Outbreak details

Most of the known salmonella cases involve children younger than 5. The onset dates reported so far were between Oct. 27, 2022 and July 16, 2023.

USA Today said 80% of those who got sick had contact with turtles — the majority with small turtles. Nearly two-thirds said they’d purchased their pet turtle online, but nearly 4 in 10 said they came from a pet store.

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