The Dangers of Exotic Pets

By: Jessa Goddard, Medical Reporter
By: Jessa Goddard, Medical Reporter

Knoxville (WVLT) - It’s a sad reminder about the health risks associated with owning a reptile.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have revealed a three-week-old girl died of salmonella transmitted by a pet turtle.

The infant girl was taken to a Florida hospital with a fever and in septic shock. She was given antibiotics, but died less than 10 days later.

These turtle-linked infections continue to occur, because a 1975 law isn't fully enforced.

One death, and 22 infections by reptiles across the US since September.

Salmonella can be transmitted to humans by direct or indirect with a turtle or its feces.

University of Tennessee Veterinarian Cheryl Greenacre says she recommends all reptile owners assume their pet carries the bacteria. "It's part of what's normal flora for them, it's called normal bacteria in them, it doesn't cause a problem. And then, in other animals, it does cause a problem."

Salmonella usually doesn't cause any illness in reptiles, but can cause serious illness in people, particularly children.

Small turtles pose a particular danger to young children because these turtles might not be perceived as health hazards and can be handled like toys.

The reason behind a 1975 law banning the sale of turtles with a shell less than four inches long.

"Turtles under four inches were more likely to be placed in a kid's mouth, the kids were more likely to stick it in their mouth, and if it was bigger, the kids would be less likely to stick it in their mouth,” Dr. Greenacre explains.

Though, in the State of Tennessee, the sale or purchase of any size turtle is illegal. But, it's not just turtles that carry the bacteria.

So, here are some precautions, if you have a lizard, for example.

Always wash your hands with hot, soapy water after handling reptiles.

Don't allow reptiles to have access to any room where food is prepared.

Don't eat, drink or smoke when handling reptiles.

And don't use the kitchen or bathroom sink to bathe them or their cage, aquarium or dishes.

Federal health officials recommend children less than five years of age avoid contact with reptiles, and households with children less than one don't own them at all.

They estimate about six percent of all salmonella infections in the US are caused by reptiles.

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