I thought it was cute the day my kids brought home a pet turtle. They named him Frankie and we loved to watch him crawl across our kitchen floor and climb from the plastic rock to the plastic palm tree in his little aquarium. We thought he was so clever and athletic. I had turtles when I was growing up, and I was excited that my kids would get to have fond memories with Frankie. Until a friend casually mentioned that turtles are rife with Salmonella. I quickly Googled “Salmonella and turtles” for confirmation.
Sure enough, my friend was right. As I scrubbed Frankie’s track marks from my kitchen floor, I debated how I would tell my kids that Frankie had to go.
According to Dr. Susan Poutanen, microbiologist and infectious disease specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto and University Health Network, turtles are, in fact, a high-risk pet if you’ve got little kids in the house.
“In general, all animals carry a risk of pathogens but turtles have one of the highest risks. They can carry Salmonella, which can cause diarrhea, sepsis or other complications,” she says. “Kids ages zero to six have the biggest risk of getting sick because at this age they are doing the most exploration with their hands. They are likely to put their hands in their mouths before washing them, and their immune systems aren’t as strong. Babies are at the most risk,” says Dr. Poutanen.
There are several high-risk pets that may carry a risk of infection for children, says Dr. Poutanen, including lizards, snakes, frogs, hamsters, hedgehogs, chickens and baby chicks. “These pets may carry harmful bacteria, like Salmonella, that could be contained in their waste. If a parent cleans a hamster cage, for instance, and doesn’t properly wash their hands before preparing food, their entire family could potentially become exposed,” says Dr. Poutanen.
If you have a high-risk pet, keep them out of the kitchen and ensure everyone washes his or her hands after any interaction with the pet. “It’s a good infection control practice and good for families in general.”
The same hand hygiene rules should apply to kids who pick up bird feathers, dig for worms in soil or visit a petting zoo.
“Earth worms are not known to cause harm, but because they are in soil, there’s the potential that they may carry germs from feces in the soil. Feces from cats, dogs or raccoons can carry roundworms and can cause disease if you ingest it and feces from cats and dogs can carry hookworms which can cause disease if you touch it,” says Dr. Poutanen.
Bird feathers can also carry bacteria or viruses and can potentially cause harm. “But the risk would not be as high as cleaning out your bird’s cage, where you can put yourself at risk from inhaling pathogens in bird feces,” she says.
Petting zoos require some caution as well. “Touching chicks or chickens can be risky because they may come in contact with animal manure, putting you at risk for Salmonella or E. coli,” she says. She warns parents to make sure kids wash their hands thoroughly or rub hand sanitizer into their hands until dry. Dr. Poutanen also advises that parents not bring pacifiers, bottles, sippy cups or food into the petting area.
“If you’re taking your stroller into the area, make sure you wash the wheels before bringing the stroller into your house, or leave it outside altogether, as the wheels could have come in contact with animal feces,” says Dr. Poutanen.
If you do get sick with Salmonella or E. coli, symptoms typically include diarrhea, stomach cramps or vomiting that begin within 12 to 72 hours of touching the disease-carrying animal. Symptoms could last from four days to a week.
“If symptoms are severe or if they worsen, rather than improve, see a doctor for advice.”
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, Feb/Mar 2015.