Turtles and Salmonella

By: Pamela Wilson, LVT, MEd, MCHES

TVMA Member
Austin, TX

Published June 2014

In 1975, the U.S. banned the sale of turtles less than four inches long in an effort to prevent turtle-associated Salmonella infections (salmonellosis) in humans. Salmonellosis is caused by a bacteria that, when ingested by humans, can cause symptoms that commonly include diarrhea, stomach pain, vomiting and fever. While these clinical signs typically subside within a week, some people can become ill enough to require hospitalization. Severe infection can cause septicemia (bacteria in the bloodstream) and, rarely, death.

Although other reptiles, such as snakes and iguanas, can also carry Salmonella, small turtles are believed to be at higher risk for exposing young children to the disease. Children might be more likely to handle small turtles or place the animals in or around their mouths, and may accidentally ingest the bacteria. While the animals may carry the bacteria, they usually do not become ill and do not appear to be sick. Therefore, the animal’s behavior and appearance provide no information as to whether or not you might get infected from them.

Current recommendations for handling pet reptiles include:

  • Always wash your hands with warm soap and running water after handling reptiles or their containers, water or fecesWaste matter discharged from the bowels after food has been digested; excrement.. Teach your children to do the same.
  • Salmonella can contaminate the containers (such as cages, tanks or terrariums), dishes and water with which these animals come in contact. Do not clean this equipment at the kitchen sink or in any areas where food or drink is prepared or consumed.
  • Wear disposable gloves when washing the containers or dishes.
  • It is not recommended to allow these animals to roam freely in your home. Disinfection of any surfaces in your household that these animals contact is recommended.
  • It is recommended that turtles or reptiles of any size should not be handled by children younger than five years of age, elderly people or people with weakened immune systems, which could be caused by pregnancy, disease (such as cancer) or certain medical treatments (such as chemotherapy).

Special guidelines for child-care centers have been developed due to the serious nature of Salmonella infections in young children. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services prepares and enforces minimum standards for child-care centers. Due to the risks of being exposed to Salmonella, these standards prohibit children at child-care centers from having contact with reptiles (including turtles, snakes, lizards and iguanas), as well as other animals such as chickens, ducks and amphibians (including frogs and toads) that may also carry the bacteria.

In Texas, all stores that sell reptiles are required to distribute written warnings to people who buy reptiles and post warning signs regarding reptile-associated salmonellosis. This law, plus samples of the signs and warnings containing the required language, can be obtained through the Texas Department of State Health Services.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department also has regulations that require a non-game permit for possessing, transporting or selling certain species of turtles. However, the federal law that bans the sale of small turtles (shells smaller than four inches long) overrides this law and is still in effect. If you suspect that somebody is illegally selling these animals, please contact the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

If you find turtles in the wild, do not disturb them or make them pets. Previously captive turtles might have difficulty surviving if released into the wild.


 Herpetological Societies and Rescues: www.anapsid.org/societies/texas.html

 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

(General information on salmonellosis)
(Poster on exposure to Salmonella by reptiles and amphibians)

Code of Federal Regulations
(Federal law banning the sale of small turtles)

Texas Department of Family and Protective Services

(Texas Administrative Code, Minimum Standards for Child-care Centers, Title 40, Chapter 746, Section 746.3905)

Texas Department of State Health Services

(Texas Health and Safety Code, Communicable Diseases, Chapter 81, Sections 81.351-353; Texas Administrative Code, Reptile-associated Salmonellosis, Title 25, Chapter 169, Section 169.121; Sample sign and written warning containing information required by state law)

Texas Department of State Health Services, Zoonosis Control, Health Service Region 11, Harlingen: Turtles, Reptiles, and Salmonella, Monthly Newsletter – May 2012

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department

(Texas Administrative Code, Texas Turtle Regulations, Title 31, Chapter 65, Section 65.331)

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