Salmonella Outbreaks Linked to Small Turtles

Illustration with a microscope and text reading Investigation Notice

Posted November 21, 2023

These outbreak investigations are over. Small turtles can carry Salmonella germs that can spread to you and make you sick. Always take steps to stay healthy around your pet turtles.

Fast Facts
  • Illnesses: 80
  • Hospitalizations: 32
  • Deaths: 0
  • States: 24
  • Investigation status: Closed  (first posted on August 18, 2023)
Photo of a small turtle.
Turtles and Salmonella

A federal law bans the sale and distribution of turtles with shells less than 4 inches long as pets because they have caused many illnesses, especially in young children. Despite the ban, these turtles can sometimes be sold illegally online and at stores, flea markets, or roadside stands. They are also sometimes given out as prizes at carnivals or fairs.

Pet turtles of any size can carry Salmonella germs in their droppings even if they look healthy and clean. These germs can easily spread to their bodies, tank water, and anything in the area where they live and roam.

You can get sick from touching a turtle or anything in its environment and then touching your mouth or food with unwashed hands and swallowing Salmonella germs.

What You Should Do

If you are thinking of getting a pet turtle:

  • Only buy turtles with shells longer than 4 inches and buy them from a reputable pet store
    • Reputable pet stores do not sell turtles with shells less than 4 inches long.
  • Pick the right pet for your family
    • Pet turtles, including those with shells longer than 4 inches, are not recommended for children younger than 5, adults aged 65 and older, or people with weakened immune systems. These people are more likely to get a serious illness from germs that turtles can carry.
    • Some people in this outbreak have become ill from turtles that were given to them as gifts. Before giving pet turtles as gifts, discuss with the person or their caregivers. Some pets may not be right for every family.

Always take these steps to stay healthy around your pet turtle:

  • Wash your hands
    • Always wash hands thoroughly with soap and water right after touching or feeding your turtle and after touching or cleaning the area where it lives and roams.
    • Adults should make sure young children are washing their hands properly.
  • Play safely
    • Don’t kiss or snuggle your turtle, and don’t eat or drink around it. This can spread Salmonella germs to your mouth and make you sick.
    • Keep your turtle out of your kitchen and other areas where you eat, store, or prepare food.
  • Keep things clean
    • Use a wash tub and sponge or scrub that are just used for your pet.
    • You can also use a laundry sink or bathtub, but make sure to remove people’s items from the sink and tub before cleaning pet items. Then thoroughly clean and disinfect the sink or tub immediately after.
    • Using a kitchen sink may spread germs to your food. If the kitchen sink is the only place you can clean pet items, thoroughly clean and disinfect the sink and the area around the sink immediately after.

If you decide pet turtles are not the right fit for your family:

  • Don’t release your turtle outside
    • Call your local reptile rescue, animal shelter, or pet store about options for safely finding a new home for your turtle.
    • Releasing pets into the wild can disrupt wildlife and may be prohibited by law in certain states.

 Call a healthcare provider right away if you have any of these severe Salmonella symptoms:

  • Diarrhea and a fever higher than 102°F
  • Diarrhea for more than 3 days that is not improving
  • Bloody diarrhea
  • So much vomiting that you cannot keep liquids down
  • Signs of dehydration, such as:
    • Not peeing much
    • Dry mouth and throat
    • Feeling dizzy when standing up
What Businesses Should Do
  • Do not sell or distribute turtles with shells less than 4 inches long.
    • A federal law bans the sale and distribution of these turtles as pets.
    • Do not give small turtles out as prizes. Some people have become sick in this outbreak after winning their small turtle at a carnival or fair.
  • Educate customers about how to stay healthy around turtles.
    • This poster [PDF – 1 page] provides information on how to stay healthy around turtles.
    • Consider putting the poster right by the turtle area and giving a copy to customers who are buying turtles.
  • Learn more about how to protect your customers and employees from Salmonella and other diseases shared between animals and humans.
Symptoms of Salmonella
  • Most people infected with Salmonella experience diarrhea, fever, and stomach cramps.
    • Symptoms usually start 6 hours to 6 days after swallowing the bacteria.
    • Most people recover without treatment after 4 to 7 days.
  • Some people—especially children younger than 5 years, adults 65 years and older, and people with weakened immune systems—may experience more severe illnesses that require medical treatment or hospitalization.
  • For more information about Salmonella, see the Salmonella Questions and Answers page.