Health and Safety Information: Keeping You and Your Turtle Healthy
If you've been talking to people about wanting to keep a pet turtle, you've probably heard someone tell you that turtles carry diseases. And you know what? They do. But so does every other animal -- including people!
In fact, there's a name for diseases that can transmitted between different kinds of animals. They're called zoonotic diseases or zoonoses. (Zoonotic is pronounced zoo-oh-NOT-ik, and zoonoses is pronounced zoo-oh-NO-seez, just in case you're a kid and you want to impress your science teacher.)
The reason why people especially worry about getting sick from turtles is that back in the 1960's and 1970's, a lot of kids caught a serious disease called Salmonella from their pet turtles. A lot of animals can transmit Salmonella, but turtles and other reptiles, birds, and amphibians are especially likely to carry Salmonella bacteria.
Salmonella can be a serious disease for people, especially if they're very young, very old, or immunocompromised (already sick with something else that weakens their resistance). In healthy people it usually causes really bad diarrhea and fever, which usually goes away in a few days. But in serious cases, people can die from it.
Turtles (as well as other reptiles, amphibians, and birds) can carry the Salmonella germ without getting sick themselves. Just because your turtle looks healthy doesn't mean he or she doesn't carry the Salmonella bacteria, so we always have to be careful.
Keeping Ourselves and our Turtles Healthy and Happy
When caring for turtles (or any animal, really), we have to take precautions to help protect ourselves from catching illnesses from our animals, and we also have to take precautions to help protect our animals from catching illnesses from us. We pick up germs on our hands whenever we touch anything, and a few of these could make our turtles sick. So to keep our turtles and ourselves healthy and happy, we have to follow some rules. (Luckily, they're really simple.)
Rule 1: Wash Your Hands!
The most important health rule for turtle keepers is to wash your hands before and after handling your turtle or its habitat.
Salmonella is transmitted in an animal's feces (poop). Because aquatic turtles poop in the water, they can get Salmonella germs on the outsides of their bodies when they swim; and we can get those germs into our bodies when we handle the turtles or anything in their habitat. This includes the water, the tank, the filter, and anything else in the habitat.
So the number one rule for keeping ourselves healthy is to wash our hands immediately after touching our turtles or anything our turtles have touched. You also can use hand sanitizer (the kind you get at the pharmacy) after you wash and dry your hands.
We also need to wash our hands before touching our turtles, and we have to be really careful to rinse them carefully and get all the soap off. Some soaps and detergent can be harmful to turtles.
Rule 2: Keep the Turtle's Habitat Clean
Especially the water. Remember that turtles eat, drink, swim, defecate (poop), and urinate (pee), all in the same water. That water can get very dirty, very quickly; and the dirtier it gets, the more full of germs it will be. These germs can make both you and your turtle sick, so you have to keep it clean by using a big enough tank and a good filter, quickly removing any food leftovers (or feeding your turtle in a separate tank), and performing regular water changes.
You can read more about maintaining the water quality here.
Rule 3: Don't Handle Your Turtle When You're Sick
If you have a cold or are sick in any way, don't play with your turtle or touch its habitat any more than you have to. This is to protect both your turtle and yourself, because when you're sick with one thing, your resistance is lowered and it's easier for you to get sick with something else. So if there's someone else who can take care of your turtle while you're sick, ask them to help.
If there's no one else who can help you care for your turtle, wash your hands especially well before feeding it, wash your hands afterwards (which you should be doing anyway), don't touch your turtle any more than necessary, and don't cough or sneeze on your turtle.
Rule 4: Don't Kiss Your Turtle
I know this sounds dumb, but a lot of the children who caught Salmonella from their turtles either kissed them or put the turtles in their mouths. Don't do that! You might get very sick if you do.
Besides, turtles don't like being kissed, anyway.
Rule 5: Make Sure Other People Also Follow the Rules
This is especially true if you have younger brothers or sisters. Turtles are funny and cute, and little kids may not understand that there are special health and safety rules for keeping turtles. Even grown-up people might not know the rules.
So if someone wants to see your turtle, it's your job to make sure that they know and follow all of these rules. Even if you're a kid, it's still your turtle and your responsibility.
Rule 6: Find a Good Vet
Like all animals (and people), turtles should go to the doctor for check-ups, as well as when they're sick. So call around and find a good veterinarian who knows how to care for reptiles. You can ask other turtle owners in your neighborhood if they know of a good "herp vet," or you can ask on an online forum for turtle keepers, like www.turtleforum.com.
Find a vet for your turtle before your turtle gets sick. In an emergency, you want to already know who to call.