A baby turtle in Roxborough

? Love Philly? Sign up for the free Billy Penn email newsletter to get everything you need to know about Philadelphia, every day.

It’s been a year of grave public health advisories. But as the pandemic approaches its first birthday, a strange one is being added to the list. The latest release from the Philly Health Department has nothing to do with COVID-19.

Don’t buy pet turtles. Or pet them. Or kiss them. Definitely do not snuggle them. Because salmonella.

You know, the cute little terrapins that roadside entrepreneurs often sell on the side of the road? They’re a semi-regular fixture at certain intersections around town, from the area around Temple University to deep Southwest Philly.

But local and federal health officials say now’s not the time to indulge in any of the abovementioned turtle-touching activities.

Infectious disease experts are investigating a salmonella outbreak that’s linked to the normally harmless pets. So far, eight cases have been diagnosed in Philadelphia and Delaware Counties, according to the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.

“While most people don’t think that a tiny turtle purchased for a few bucks on the side of the road could put you in the hospital, it can and does happen,” Coleman Terrell, acting director for Division of Disease Control, said in a statement.

Salmonellosis is a gastrointestinal infection that can prove fatal in some people, especially children and adults with compromised immune systems, according to the C.D.C. The illness can last four to seven days. Common symptoms include diarrhea, headache, nausea and vomiting — while severe cases can entail a high fever and bloody stool.

Terrell advises people who recently purchased one of these turtles and are now experiencing symptoms to contact their doctor as soon as possible.

Salmonella can be transmitted through food and animals. Recent food-based outbreaks have occurred in onions, mushrooms, ground beef and pre-cut melon, among other foods, according to the CDC. In recent years, there have also been outbreaks in pet guinea pigs, pet bearded dragons and backyard poultry. Pet turtle outbreaks have been identified at least six years over the last decade.

It’s not unusual for healthy turtles to carry the bacteria, according to the city health department, which advises families that keep them as pets to take extra sanitary precautions when handling their hard-shelled family members. Specifically, Philly health officials said:

Always wash hands with soap and water after handling turtles and/or changing water in the tank

Do not allow turtles in the kitchen, dining room, or any area in which food is prepared and consumed. Also, do not allow turtles in bathroom sinks, tubs, or any area where infants are bathed.

Do not eat, drink, or smoke while handling turtles

Do not kiss or snuggle turtles

Those at high risk of disease (e.g., children less than 5 years of age, the elderly, pregnant women, and immunocompromised persons) should avoid contact with turtles

As the pandemic approaches one year in the region, and as people pay more attention to wildlife, did we really need to be cut off from turtle snuggling?

Afraid so.


Also, don’t release your turtle into the wild streets of Philadelphia if you’re concerned about the outbreak.

The health department says some species can be invasive, and you should call the Philadelphia Animal Care and Control Team at 267-385-3800 if you need them to come take your tortoise away.

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...