HOUSTON - A ban on the sales of turtles with shells four inches or smaller dates back to the 1970s, but recent salmonella outbreaks have prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to warn families about the popular pets.
Turtles and other reptiles such as iguanas, lizards and snakes all carry Salmonella bacteria, which can easily be transferred to human mouths and hands.
The CDC reported 196 cases of salmonella nationwide so far in 2012, which have been directly linked to pet turtles.
Twenty of those cases were in Texas. Sixty-three percent were in kids ages 10 and under.
Almost 30 percent of the cases were in children under a year old and 55 percent of the cases reported were in Hispanic households.
Veterinarian Dr. Mark Peckham with Bellaire Blvd. Animal Clinic said the No. 1 rule is to practice good hygiene when handling reptiles.
He explained, "Turtles are no more dangerous than raw chicken because raw chicken also has salmonella and we know we have to disinfect our countertops to prevent from getting sick when cooking chicken and handling it. So they're not real dangerous because of salmonella, but you just have to follow the right guidelines."
Due to the possible health risk, the CDC also advised families with small children, pregnant women, seniors and others with weak immune systems against owning pet turtles.
Peckham added, "They may handle the animal or clean the cage or what have you and not wash their hands. Then they go to get a sandwich or some sort of finger-food item and then they contaminate themselves."
Where you clean the reptile cages are just as important. Many people use the kitchen sink, which can cause cross contamination.
Symptoms of salmonella include diarrhea, vomiting, fever and abdominal cramps, usually lasting four to seven days.
If you are thinking of getting a pet turtle, Peckham said maintaining their proper habitat is just as important to prevent them from getting sick from their own salmonella.
He recommended doing your research beforehand and consulting with a veterinarian.
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