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Small turtles are often sold online despite disease risks

In a new study published in the journal PLoS ONE, researchers have found that small turtles are often sold illegally as pets online. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration prohibited the sale of small pet turtles in 1975 due to the number of illnesses they can cause, including Salmonella infection

“In the 1960s and 1970s, hatchling turtles became increasingly popular pets in the United States. By the early 1970s, about 4% of households in the U.S. owned at least one turtle, and about 15 million hatchling turtles, primarily red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans), were being sold annually,” wrote the study authors.

“As hatchlings, red-eared sliders are about the size of a U.S. quarter (24.3 mm), and their size, coupled with a lime green shell and red stripes on the sides of their heads, made them popular and highly desired as pets. During the same period, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was documenting salmonellosis, an intestinal disease caused by Salmonella bacteria, cases in the public, and it was estimated that approximately 280,000 cases per year were attributable to turtle ownership.”

The researchers explained that small children, in particular, were contracting salmonellosis because of poor hygiene after handling turtles. They noted that salmonellosis can cause severe illness and death, especially in young children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems.

The experts set out to determine whether websites are selling small turtles, in violation of the 1975 regulation. They found that half of online sellers fail to provide information about the disease risk and the laws pertaining to small turtles. 

“Despite passage of the Food and Drug Administration regulation nearly 50 years ago prohibiting the sale of these turtles, our research has demonstrated that internet sales of small turtles currently represent part of the thriving online pet trade in the U.S. Enforcement of the regulation is likely done in an ad hoc manner in brick-and-mortar pet stores, but there are jurisdictional challenges to enforcement of this federal regulation by state agents in most states,” wrote the study authors. 

“In addition, law enforcement agents at the state and federal levels may feel that they have more important issues regarding internet-based wildlife sales, including monitoring sales of endangered species or potentially injurious species, such as big cats or primates. However, salmonellosis outbreaks continue to occur in the U.S. and are regularly attributed to pet turtles, which represent a more expansive public health concern than that posed by potentially injurious animals.”

By Chrissy Sexton, Editor

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