PIJAC Offers Safety Tips Following CDC’s Salmonella Alert
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued an outbreak warning on Aug. 29, after 37 people in 13 states contracted Salmonella Agbeni linked to contact with turtles. Genetic analysis by CDC confirmed that the strain of Salmonella from patients in this outbreak is closely related to the Agbeni strain found in turtles from a street vendor in 2015.
In the current outbreak, first discovered in March, 16 patients were hospitalized, indicating that salmonellosis may lead to serious complications, particularly in young children, senior citizens and those with weakened immune systems. In this outbreak, roughly one-third of the cases involved children under five years of age.
About half of the patients interviewed had some type of contact with turtles or their habitats prior to developing symptoms. A smaller number (6) reported that had bought a turtle from a street vendor or flea market, or received the turtle as a gift.
As part of its partnership with the CDC to inform the companion animal industry and the wider public about disease outbreaks, the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC) issued a Health Alert with advice for pet turtle owners to prevent Salmonella. This continues industry efforts to inform retailers and the public about the potential for transmission of illness from companion animals to their owners along with measures to prevent these diseases.
Despite media reports that have used the outbreak to claim that turtle ownership is inherently risky, some simple hygiene practices are effective in preventing Salmonella transmission. This is borne out by the relatively small number of turtle-associated Salmonella cases in comparison to the 1.3 million households with pet turtles (American Veterinary Medical Association’s 2012 survey of pet owners).
Reducing Risk Factors
Reptile-associated Salmonella should not be taken lightly, as evidenced by the number of patients seeking hospital care during the current outbreak. There is greater concern over Salmonella infection in young children, pregnant women, senior citizens and people with weakened immune systems due to the greater likelihood of complications. CDC and PIJAC counsel that turtles are not appropriate in these higher risk households. The current FDA regulation that prohibits the sale of pet turtles with a carapace length less than four inches reflects legitimate public health concerns about Salmonella transmission, particularly in young children.
Although all turtles may carry Salmonella, a few relatively straightforward hygienic practices are effective in preventing disease transmission:
- Handwashing is the best weapon: CDC advises washing your hands with soap and water immediately after handling or caring for turtles, their tanks and anything in their habitat.
- Young children should be supervised to ensure that their hands are washed thoroughly after contact with turtles.
- Turtles and their habitats (including tanks, food bowls, decorations and substrate) should not be cleaned in food preparation areas to avoid cross-contamination.
- Turtles and tanks are best cleaned outdoors; if you use a bathroom for these tasks, the area should be disinfected immediately afterwards.
The industry also has an important role in prevention. PIJAC encourages retail businesses to ensure that consumers who are buying reptiles have access to information on disease risk and prevention measures. PIJAC’s Healthy Herp Handling poster (see Resources below) is an eye-catching store display with advice for reptile owners. Information can be provided at consumer-facing expos and shows, as well as through outreach to your local community through fliers and the media.
Consumers are advised to buy pets only from reputable, legal retailers. Working with responsible retailers is a key way for consumers to learn about zoonotic illnesses, the companion animals that carry them, and the steps that they can take to prevent illness.
Resources for further information:
- Updates on this outbreak and other zoonotic issues can be found on the PIJAC website
- PIJAC’s Healthy Herp Handling poster is available on our website here
- Information on Salmonella for retailers is available on PIJAC’s website here
- CDC advice on responsible turtle keeping can be found here
- More information on Salmonella is available at here
Scott Hardin is science advisor, exotic and invasive species, for PIJAC.