Every pet comes with a list of risks and benefits easily accessible on the internet. Unfortunately, not everything you read about pets is true, and this is especially problematic for tortoises. One of the biggest warnings about tortoise ownership stems from the fear of salmonella. So, we’re here to tell you the truth about this dangerous bacteria and exactly what it has to do with tortoises.
But first, the biggest question:
Do all tortoises carry salmonella? Not all tortoises carry salmonella but they are all likely to carry it. For health and safety, it is best to assume all reptiles and amphibians carry salmonella on their skin, scales, shells, or in their excrement.
Saying all tortoises have salmonella is like saying that all dogs have fleas or that all people have dandruff. None of those statements are completely accurate. Even though not every tortoise definitely has salmonella, they are at higher risk of carrying it than a mammal or bird, for example. Keep reading for the important facts about tortoises and salmonella and how you can keep yourself healthy.
What is Salmonella?
It’s deadly important that reptile-keepers understand what kinds of bacteria and parasites can infect their pets. While there is a long list to go over, we’ll focus on the one that gets the most attention from the internet and sensationalist media.
Salmonella is a dangerous bacterium that can cause a host of terrible health issues in humans and other animals. The salmonella bacteria you’ve probably heard about in the news is from the same rod-shaped aerobic genus that causes typhoid fever. Salmonella is often the cause of food poisoning in the modern world, but can still be responsible for other more dangerous illnesses.
Even though salmonella is often found on the skin, scales, shells, and in the intestines of reptiles and amphibians, it doesn’t typically make those infected animals sick. They have built up a resistance to them. However, one chance encounter with an infected animal can spread the bacteria to countless humans.
It takes a paltry 72 hours from exposure to these bacteria until symptoms begin to emerge, and if a young child, elderly person, or someone with a compromised immune system becomes infected, death can come without notice.
Since it is so easily spread, it’s imperative that reptile-keepers maintain their animals’ enclosures in spotless condition.
Symptoms of Salmonella Infections
Someone infected with salmonella can expect to suffer the following symptoms. While not all cases will show every sign, it’s good to know what to look for.
- Muscle pains
- Nausea with or without vomiting
- Stomach cramps
- Bloody stools
- Joint pain that can last for months, years, or for the rest of their lives
It should be clear by now that salmonella is no laughing matter. Since tortoises are one of the main carriers for the bacteria, it’s imperative that tortoise-keepers understand the risks and practice suitable prevention.
How Do Tortoises Carry Salmonella?
Before you can prevent a salmonella infection, you need to understand how and where a tortoise could be carrying it. You’ve probably already heard the rule of always washing your hands before and after handling your tortoise. But did you know that it’s not just the animal itself you need to worry about?
Tortoises carry salmonella on their shells. This is the main part of the animal that most people will be in contact with. Yet, salmonella can also live on a tortoise’s skin. The bacterium is especially fond of the folds and flaps, down deep inside the wrinkles where there is more chance of heat and moisture being trapped.
Salmonella can also thrive around the base of a tortoise’s scales. This is the one spot most tortoise-keepers forget about because the space is so small and seemingly unimportant. However, just like mites, salmonella loves to get down deep in those crevasses between scales.
One of the ways tortoises spread salmonella, even if you never touch your tortoise at all, is through excrement. Salmonella lives happily in the digestive tracts of reptiles. The environment is perfect for them. When a reptile, including tortoises, excrete feces, it’s often infected with salmonella.
Even if you never touch your tortoise and never come in contact with tortoise feces, you can still become infected.
Other Possible Salmonella Locations
The salmonella bacteria are sneaky little buggers. All it takes is for a tortoise to brush up against a plant or furniture in its enclosure to transfer the bacteria there. If your tortoise happens to step in its own waste after a good trip to the bathroom—which is a common thing they do—they can track the bacteria all over the tank before you’d ever even notice.
The enclosure itself is a breeding ground for salmonella, even if you take great care in keeping it clean. It’s just the nature of reptile-keeping, so it’s something you need to be aware of. Corners of the enclosure are especially vulnerable to salmonella infections, but be sure to clean all the way down under the substrate, too.
If your tortoise never leaves the enclosure, your exposure risk is quite small. Wear gloves while cleaning and be sure to wash your hands after handling your tort. However, keeping a tortoise locked up forever is cruel and we don’t advise it.
That means your tortie might have free run of your room, the house, or your yard. If that’s the case, he’s likely tracking salmonella everywhere he goes.
A Word on Tortoise Claws
Though tortoises don’t need the same level of grooming as cats, dogs, or other pets, they do need some maintenance. That includes their nails. Unfortunately, around the nail beds happens to be an excellent spot for salmonella to thrive.
Because many tortoises will walk right through their own feces without another thought, they tend to dig their claws into it, giving the bacteria ample opportunity to take up residence around each nail. As your tortoise digs and burrows, the bacteria get shoved deeper into the nail bed, making it nearly impossible for you to clean them out during nail clipping time.
In fact, we don’t suggest you even try. Once a tortoise has been infected with salmonella, it’s unlikely you’d be able to get rid of it completely. Instead, we suggest you just clean and trim your tort’s nails as normal, but take precautions while doing so. One slip during nail clipping and you could become a new host for salmonella.
How to Prevent Salmonella Infections from a Tortoise
Since it’s likely that your pet tortoise has salmonella on or in him, it’s best to always follow safe handling practices. We’ve touched on this briefly above, but let’s take a closer look.
Wash Before Handling
Washing your hands before handling your tortoise will keep him safe from outside bacteria. This includes salmonella, believe it or not. Salmonella doesn’t only come from tortoises. An infected human could pass it on to you, animal feces or surfaces exposed to animal feces, even restaurants can have salmonella.
Beef, poultry, eggs—these can all be infected, and these are things you may handle every day. Sometimes fruits and veggies are infected at the grocery store and you might be bringing it home.
If you happen to have a tortoise who hasn’t been infected yet, it’s best to make sure they stay that way. Washing your hands before handling him will do that.
Wash After Handling
Washing your hands immediately after handling your tortoise will stop the spread of salmonella. You must wash your hands the moment you are done touching the tortoise or her enclosure. Since most people don’t have full sinks and washing facilities inside their bedrooms, living rooms, or other common tortoise rooms, you need another solution. We like wet wipes. Any kind of wet wipe that mentions killing bacteria should work.
But don’t stop there. The wipe is only going to clean your hands so much. You need to fully wash your hands in warm, soapy water for at least 30 seconds to a full minute to be sure you’re not going to infect the household. The wipes only make it safer for you to touch doorknobs and other surfaces in the house.
Use Antibacterial Wipes
To keep your house bacteria-free, use antibacterial wipes on all surfaces you’ve touched after handling your tortoise or her belongings. Be fastidious in this chore. Salmonella bacteria can live for a long time on surfaces. Using an antibacterial wipe will help keep things under control.
We don’t suggest using antibacterial sprays anywhere a tortoise lives. These sprays, while mostly harmless to humans, can damage the lungs of many reptile species. Even if you only use the spray outside the reptile room, you still run the risk of bringing airborne particles into the room with you.
Keep the Cage Clean
While it’s impossible to wash salmonella off of an infected tortoise—because it’s also in their digestive tract—you can keep the bacteria colonies at bay. All you need to do is keep your tort’s enclosure immaculately clean.
You won’t be able to kill every single bacterium that lives in the tank, but you can reduce the numbers significantly, which then reduces the chances of exposure.
We’re not about to tell you to handle your tortoise with gloves on. That defeats the purpose of bonding with your tortoise if you ask us. However, wearing latex or nitrile gloves while handling enclosure decorations, food and water dishes, and anything that has come in contact with your tort is a good plan. This reduces your exposure chances significantly.
It’s also wise to use gloves during tortoise soak time. The warm water will be teeming with salmonella if your tort is infected. Submerging your hands into that germy slurry is a surefire way to make yourself and your loved ones sick.
Avoid Touching Your Mouth
This should go without saying, but you would not believe how many times we’ve witnessed this. Don’t touch your face or mouth during or after handling a tortoise. This includes feeding and cleaning time, too. Salmonella can be anywhere that the tortoise has had access to. Just scratching your nose or rubbing your mouth with your forearm is enough to transfer that bacteria to your body.
Many people will instinctively touch their faces, even after handling a tortoise. Pay attention to these mindless gestures. Always be mindful of where you’re putting your hands and what you’re touching.
Watch for Sores
One thing a lot of tortoise-keepers forget to look for is the presence of sores, cuts, or abrasions on their skin. Why is this important? Because all the salmonella bacteria need to get inside your body is a microscopic cut.
Any kind of rash, scratch, hole, or injury, no matter how small and insignificant, is a doorway to a nasty salmonella infection. This mode of transmission isn’t as common as directly into your mouth or on your face, but it happens enough that we need to mention it.
This is another reason it’s important to wear gloves. If you’re not sure if you have a cut or sore, wear the gloves, just in case.
Keep Pets Away from Tortoises
It’s not just humans that can transfer salmonella from a tortoise to the rest of the house. Other pets can, too. A curious cat pawing at a tortoise is one way salmonella can infect a household. A playful pup licking a tortoise shell is another. A pet bird perched on the edge of the tank can quickly pick up the bacteria, then transfer it all over the house.
If you’ve read much on this site, you’ll already know we suggest keeping all other pets away from tortoises for a long list of reasons. Add sanitation and bacteria control to that list.
There is some truth to all the warnings you see online regarding tortoises and salmonella. The bacteria can make you incredibly ill; it can even cause death to certain individuals such as babies and the elderly. It’s easy to pass on to others and it can live in just about any environment found in a house.
But there is no reason to be scared of owning a tortoise. Just because reptiles often carry salmonella, it doesn’t mean they’re not great pets. All it takes is some education and dedication to proper reptile-keeping to keep your tortoise and yourself happy and healthy.