Most animal species have an inherent defense mechanism for survival.
At the first sign of danger, a turtle will hide its legs, tail and head in its shell for protection. However, 90 percent of these slow and “harmless” reptiles are hiding an offensive mechanism to which people do not have a natural defense.
Reptiles are a source of salmonella infection, and more than 90 percent of reptiles carry salmonella bacteria. The disease is transmitted by contact with the animal’s fecal matter, which can occur by touching the animal, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“You have to remember that there are many different types of salmonella,” said Greg Chapman, a local veterinarian. “Some are pathogenic to humans.”
An estimated 74,000 cases of the 1.2 million cases of salmonella infection each year in the United States are caused by contact with reptiles and amphibians, according to a CDC report. Typically, these infections cause several days of severe diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps. In some cases, however, serious or even life-threatening complications develop.
The CDC estimates about 600 people die each year from salmonellosis, the bacterial disease caused by the germ salmonella, and about 40 of those deaths are linked to reptiles.
“As far as salmonella goes, we are around reptiles and animals all day and we have never gotten salmonella,” said Kayvon Ashrafzadeh, owner of Columbia Pet Center.
“I just make sure to wash my hands thoroughly after touching the turtles or any animal for that matter. But, I also wash my hands after shaking someone’s hand. More diseases can be caught from human-to-human contact than from touching reptiles.”
Petco pet store sells two types of turtles, but seven other pet stores in Columbia do not sell turtles. However, Columbia Pet Center has an area with several turtles on display.
“We don’t sell turtles mostly because people don’t want to spend the money that goes into owning a turtle,” Ashrafzadeh said. “Say it costs only $25 to get the turtle, but then you have to factor in hundreds more on the cage and equipment. Most people don’t take care of them correctly, and then they get sick and even die.”
Even though there is not a huge market for store turtles, citizens are finding other ways to get their pets.
Turtles are commonly seen on Columbia sidewalks and streets, and their speed and nonthreatening behavior makes them seem ideal to play with or be made into household pets.
“It is illegal to have one in your possession,” Chapman said. “Anyone would be breaking the law if they were to pick them up from their natural environment and keep them, because they are protected by law.”
In 1975, the FDA acknowledged the danger that turtles can pose to health and banned the commercial distribution of turtles measuring less than 4 inches across the shell. However, store owners can sell turtles on the claim that it is for educational purposes or they may fail to acknowledge the ban.
“Some turtles have been cultured from birth so it can be free of salmonella, but you can’t be sure that the turtle bought at the pet store was cultured,” Chapman said.
According to City Ordinance 15069, “It shall be unlawful for any pet store owner or employee to sell a reptile unless the seller gives the purchaser written information provided by the health director describing the human health and safety risks associated with reptile ownership. The seller shall require the purchaser to sign a statement acknowledging receipt of such information. The seller shall retain the statement for at least one year from the date of sale.”
The ban on the sale of small turtles was instituted because the FDA was concerned that young children would have these turtles as pets and were more likely to touch them or put them in their mouths and contract salmonella.
According to the FDA, the ban has prevented 100,000 cases of salmonellosis among children each year. However, increased sales of small turtles have led to the fear that cases of salmonella infection may be on the rise, the agency said.
To help protect against salmonella, the CDC recommends that reptiles be kept out of homes with children younger than 5 or individuals with weakened immunity, including the elderly.