Salmonella Risk From Turtles

Many people are familiar with the dangers of infection with Salmonella species of bacteria. For instance, most of us know better than to eat raw cookie dough, or undercooked hamburger. However, what many people may not know, is that one of the commonest sources of human Salmonella infections (a.k.a. Salmonellosis) in people is direct contact with animals that carry the bacteria. Of these, reptiles and amphibians are some of the more commonly implicated species, especially turtles.

Turtles such as the species Trachemys scripta elegans, colloquially known as the Red-Eared Slider, became popular pets in the United States (U.S.) during the 1960s. By the 1970s, it was estimated that ~4% of households in the U.S. had at least 1 turtle. During this same time period, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noticed an uptick in the number of new cases of Salmonellosis related to turtle exposure, especially in young children, with as many as 280,000 cases of Salmonellosis due to turtle ownership being reported each year. Regulation enacted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1975 aimed at reducing the sale of turtles with shells less than 4 inches long (the maximum size of turtle a small child might be able to put in their mouth) seemed to help reduce the incidence of Salmonellosis due to turtle exposure.1 However, cases of Salmonellosis due to animal exposure continue to be an issue today. Currently, it’s estimated that over 1 million people are diagnosed with Salmonellosis in the United States every year, with at least 10% of those coming from exposure to animals.2 Furthermore, with the advent of online commerce, many individuals have been able to work around FDA’s ban on selling baby turtles, with public health officials observing an accompanying increase in cases of Salmonellosis in children due to exposure to turtles over the same time period.2

There are several reasons why turtles pose such a unique risk for Salmonellosis in young children. Foremost among these is the fact that Salmonella is part of the normal flora of turtles’ gastrointestinal tract, and therefore most turtles will shed it even though they appear healthy. Also, small children (<5 years old) are more susceptible to Salmonella infections than adults, and are more likely to put small turtles in their mouths, or kiss and snuggle them, and are less likely to wash their hands after handling turtles.

For these reasons, it would be wise to consider taking the following actions to protect yourself and your loved ones from Salmonellosis.

  1. Do not purchase turtles, or other reptiles/amphibians, as pets for young children
  2. If you or a child handle a turtle, wash your hands using soap and warm water and/or apply hand sanitizer afterwards
  3. If you own a pet turtle, or other reptile/amphibian, never clean food dishes, water bowls, or terrariums/aquariums in a kitchen sink or on a surface where food is prepared

If you or a loved one experience symptoms of abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea and/or body aches within 24-72 hours of handling any animal, seek medical attention and report the exposure to your physician.

In conclusion, Salmonellosis is a common source of illness in humans, and animals serve as an important reservoir for the bacteria that cause this disease. Reptiles and amphibians, especially turtles, pose a unique risk for Salmonellosis due to their natural propensity to harbor Salmonella species of bacteria and their popularity as a pet for small children. Parents and pet owners should be aware of these unique risks, and should take appropriate steps to prevent the transmission of Salmonellosis to humans from these animals.


  1. Online sale of small turtles circumvents public health regulations in the United States. L.E. Montague et al. PLoS ONE 2022 17(12): e0278443
  2. A review of the public health challenges of Salmonella and turtles. R. S. Hamid et al. Vet. Sci. 2020 7(2) 56: