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Salmonella From Your Pet?

When we hear about salmonella these days, we're more likely to think raw eggs than reptiles. But this article in the current issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association reminds us that your family's pet turtles (and other reptiles) can make people just as sick as an undercooked omelet can.

Salmonella infection generally causes diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps, starting 12 to 72 hours after exposure. It makes you feel sick as a dog, and the illness usually lasts 4 to 7 days. Most people get better without requiring treatment, but some have to head to the hospital, and, in rare cases, some die.

Following up on scattered reports of salmonella-related illness in several states, researchers took a closer look at 70 people -- kids and adults -- who'd recently been sickened by salmonella. Sixty-three percent -- 44 people -- reported they'd been exposed to a turtle shortly before becoming sick. Of these, 37 said the turtle in question was smaller than four inches. Twenty-eight said they'd held or touched a turtle; 29 had simply had contact with a turtle's living quarters. While 24 people said they'd fed a turtle during the week before they got sick, four said they'd either kissed the turtle or put the turtle in their mouth(!).

All this, despite the fact that since 1975 it has been illegal to sell a turtle whose shell measures four inches or less. Larger turtles, other reptiles and amphibians also commonly carry salmonella, but the report notes that tiny turtles are more likely to be handled by small children and, yes, kissed than, say, your average iguana.

Turns out people are still buying tiny turtles, at flea markets and on-line sites, from friends and street vendors, and even, in one instance, from a pet store. A loophole in the law allows the sale of small turtles for educational and lab purposes.

I know, I know: tiny turtles are cute. Like many people my age, I fondly remember owning a few of the little critters myself. But that was before we knew they could make us sick. Nowadays, I can't fathom why anyone would take the risk.

(Speaking of reptile risks, check out this scale-raising story by The Post's Joel Achenbach about exotic pets gone wild.)

So what's your take on pets that can make you sick? Have you avoided getting a dog or cat because someone's allergic? (Watch for Thursday's Checkup, when Rob will come back with an alternative viewpoint.)

And, while we're at it, do you regularly kiss your pets?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  April 28, 2008; 7:10 AM ET
Categories:  Family Health  
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While exotic pets are a common source of salmonella infection, the disease can be prevented by using proper hygiene. Always wash your hands use alchol based hand sanitizer after handling exotic pets. Avoiding having these pets at all is an over reaction to the situation.

Posted by: Emily | April 28, 2008 11:36 AM | Report abuse

Good point, Emily. But hygiene's sometimes hard to enforce when you've got little kids! Thanks for reading and commenting.

Posted by: Jennifer Huget | April 28, 2008 11:54 AM | Report abuse

I don't have any turtles, but I do regularly kiss my two dogs! They also sleep in bed with my husband and me, which is probably not the most sanitary idea. I figure you're more likely to get sick from your child than from your dog, though.

Posted by: christie | April 28, 2008 12:03 PM | Report abuse

oh every now and then i get a pooch smooch. well....actually more like a rottie slobber!!! And then only if she catches me off guard! Had a conure parrot as child and would always get kisses but never got sick

Posted by: nall92 | April 28, 2008 1:49 PM | Report abuse

My husband came down with a rather debilitating bout of salmonella poisoning last year. We kept no turtles, though my husband did have a substantial collection of anoles (which he named after Food Network personalities), as well as his beloved housecat, Mr. Wiggles.

His doctor ruled out Mr. Wiggles and told him that the cause was likely the anoles or the never-ending salad bowl at the Olive Garden, which he used to patronize several times a week.

After what he went through, he humanely disposed of the anoles and vowed never to eat salad at a restaurant again.

Posted by: MrsDocChuck | April 29, 2008 12:39 PM | Report abuse

Yes, I kiss my indoor-only cats on a regular basis. After all, I know what they're eating (Fancy Feast dry & wet food) since they never go outside. I suppose they might consume the occasional bug or even lizard that somehow makes it into the house, but that would be pretty rare, I'd think and even if they did, if the bug or lizard was in the house, I've been exposed to it too!

Posted by: kary | April 29, 2008 2:12 PM | Report abuse

does anyone besides me not own any pets? i am a only child and i don't really have a choice because my parents don't want the trouble of cleaning and feeding the pets even though i said that i would do all the work and take all the responsibility.

Posted by: livia | April 29, 2008 4:30 PM | Report abuse

I believe that animals, they belong outside.

Posted by: Marika | April 29, 2008 10:04 PM | Report abuse

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