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 student 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, some children 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 immune-compromised (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 (and other germs) that don't make them sick, but that can make people sick. Just because your turtle looks (and is) healthy doesn't mean he or she doesn't carry the Salmonella bacteria or other germs, so we always have to be careful.
When caring for turtles (or any animal, really), we have to take precautions to help protect ourselves from catching zoonotic illnesses from our animals, and we also have to take precautions to help protect our animals from catching zoonotic illnesses from us.
People pick up germs on our hands all the time whenever we touch anything, and some these germs cause diseases that can make our turtles sick. Likewise, turtles can carry germs that cause diseases (especially Salmonella) that don't affect the turtles, but that can make people sick.
To keep our turtles and ourselves healthy and happy, we have to follow some rules. (Luckily, they're really simple.)
The most important health rule for turtle keepers is to wash your hands before and after handling your turtle or its habitat.
As we mentioned earlier, Salmonella is a serious disease. It is transmitted in an animal's feces (pronounced FEE-seez), which is a scientific word for 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.
The Salmonella germs won't make the turtles sick, but they can make people sick! 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 because we can carry germs that don't make us sick, but that can make our turtles sick. After we wash our hands, 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.
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.
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, which means that 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.
I know this sounds dumb, but a lot of the children who caught Salmonella from their turtles caught it by kissing them. Others got sick because they put hatchling (baby) turtles in their mouths. Why? Because babies and very young children put everything in their mouths!
But turtles, or any reptiles, or any live animal, should not be kissed by people. So don't do that! You can get very sick if you do. (And besides, turtles don't like being kissed by people, anyway.)
In fact, don't put your turtles anywhere near your mouth or face, and don't put your hands near your mouth or face after handling your turtles until you have washed your hands. And if you have young children living in your home, make sure that they don't, either.
In fact, as a turtle keeper, it's your job to make sure that anyone who comes near your turtles also follows the rules. Sometimes this means teaching them because they may not know about turtles and the health and safety rules for handling them.
This is especially true if you have young children living in your home. Turtles are funny and cute, and youngsters may not understand about the diseases that turtles and other reptiles can carry. Even many adults don't know about that. But now that you know, it's your job to teach them.
So if someone wants to see your turtle, it's important that you make sure that they know and follow all of these rules. Keeping turtles safely is a big responsibility.
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 keepers 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. Many pet shops that sell reptiles or reptile supplies also know good herp vets and may be able to refer you to one.
Find a vet for your turtle before your turtle gets sick. In an emergency, you want to already know who to call.