Box Turtles as a Health Hazard

 

Turtles and salmonella are a common combination. But with some common-sense precautions, your box turtle doesn't have to be a health hazard to you.

This cute boxie could be carrying the salmonella bacteria
Cropped version of photo by Audrey @ Flickr;
licensed under CC BY 2.0

 

Is your pet box turtle a health hazard?

Maybe.

Some bacteria that can make us sick don’t cause illness in box turtles, and salmonella is one of these.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t keep one.

Many reptiles, including box turtles, can carry this bacteria without getting sick. But it can cause a serious illness, called salmonellosis, in humans.

Salmonellosis causes symptoms like nausea, cramping, diarrhea and vomiting. It can be fatal in people with compromised immune systems, young children and the elderly.

Of course, not all turtles carry the bacteria, and most people do not die from a Salmonella infection. Even so, it’s safest to assume your turtle does have the bacteria unless you’ve had him tested. And since salmonellosis symptoms are definitely unpleasant, you’ll want to avoid infection.

Small children and people with immune problems are much most susceptible to infection and complications. So if this describes any members of your family, you may not want to get a box turtle. If you already have one, those people should avoid touching it. And if they do touch it, they should be extra careful about washing afterwards.

For everyone else, using a little common sense around your pet can prevent most infections. So:

  • Always wash your hands after handling your turtles or touching their habitat and before touching anything else, especially food. For most people, regular soap will do the job just fine. If you want extra protection, use an antibacterial soap or an iodine-based soap like Betadine.
  • If you do allow children to handle your turtles, supervise them closely. Make sure they do not put their fingers in their mouths or kiss the turtle. Watch them wash their hands thoroughly afterward.
  • If you soak your turtles in a sink or tub, disinfect it afterward with bleach (a 5% solution).
  • Don’t let your box turtle roam freely in your house. If it is carrying the salmonella bacteria, it could spread it around your home. It’s also not a good idea to let turtles wander around the house anyway. The temperature and humidity are not suitable for them.

It’s also important to keep your turtles’ habitat clean to avoid other health issues, both for them and for you.

Set up a regular cleaning schedule where you remove everything you can from the pen and clean it with a 5% bleach solution (soak about 5 minutes and rinse well before putting it back). You should actually do this with the water bowl daily, since turtles tend to use it as a toilet. Remove any soiled substrate whenever you see it, and replace it all on a regular schedule, too.

Keeping the habitat clean will keep all bacteria from growing out of control, not just Salmonella. This helps keep everyone healthier.

Box turtle eating strawberry

To learn more about turtles and salmonella—and how to keep your family safe—check out Is a turtle the right pet for your family? from the CDC.

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