Tortoises & Children – Safety and Disease Concerns

Tortoises are great for a ton of reasons; with the right set up and care routine they’re easy to manage, they’re not noisy, they don’t produce respiratory allergens, watching them eat and walk around doing their thing is enough to melt the heart of the hardest of souls, and of course, because they live for so long they can be a companion for life if you want them to be.

Despite all these great reasons for owning a tortoise, they aren’t quite as well suited to being a pet as you might expect, or rather not as suited to everyone’s circumstances as you might expect. When it comes to young, boisterous children, tortoises are a definite no no.

Risk of Salmonella

It turns out that most reptiles are carriers of Salmonella. This nasty bug is normally associated with contaminated food and  can cause a pretty severe bout of diarrhea and vomiting in humans, so avoiding contact with it (ie. ingesting) is essential to prevent the risk of illness.

Unfortunately children have long been at the greatest risk of catching salmonella from hatchling and juvenile tortoises in particular because of a nasty habit of putting them in their mouths – honest! Now whilst any parent allowing this to happen would be pretty reprehensible in my opinion, that isn’t to say this is the only route of transmission.

The salmonella bacteria lives on and in just about every square millimetre of a tortoise, from inside its digestive tract to on the skin and on the shell, there’s no getting away from it, so simply handling a tortoise and forgetting to wash your hands afterwards can be enough to become infected.

Children are of course notorious for their poor personal hygiene, so unless you’re going to be able to supervise their every move during and after handling a tortoise, it’s probably a wise idea to hold off getting one as a pet until they’re old and sensible enough to wash their hands after each and every handling.

Reducing The Risk

If you are brave enough to mix tortoises with small children, you’re just concerned about minimising the risk of infection to yourself, or if you’re elderly or have a weakened immune system for example, then there are a number of steps you can take to keep yourself clear of salmonella.

The first thing to note is that unfortunately you can’t eliminate the bacterium from your tortoise altogether, no vaccinations or treatments exist that can do this. Whilst there’s a slim chance your tortoise isn’t a carrier, it’s safer to assume that it is, for the simple fact that most are.

As far as interacting with your tortoise is concerned:

  • Always wash your hands after you handle your tortoise, or touch any part of its habitat that it will have come into contact with. For example if you’re cleaning out old substrate or refilling a water tray you’ll need to wash your hands. Items or areas that have come into contact with the tortoise’s poo are particularly susceptible to being contaminated with the salmonella bacteria. Washing your hands in this case means a thorough rinse with soap and warm water.
  • Clearly if you’re brave enough to let your young children handle your tortoise, you should be extra hot on supervising them when they wash their hands. It’s also important that they don’t touch their mouths with their hands until after they’ve washed their hands
  • Do not house your tortoise in the bedrooms of young children, for the simple reason that you won’t be able to supervise their interaction with the tortoise as closely
  • Avoid allowing your tortoise to roam freely through your house. I must admit I have been known to do this from time to time, but it is best avoided.
  • If you do allow your tortoise to roam freely, at the very least you should not allow it anywhere near your kitchen or anywhere else where food is prepared. The risk of transmission of salmonella onto worksurfaces just isn’t worth it. Likewise you shouldn’t bathe your tortoise in your kitchen sink.

Cleaning out your tortoise table or vivarium is an important job, not only to promote good health and a pleasant environment for your tortoise, but also to reduce the risk of salmonella infection in you and your family.

Considerations for cleaning out your tortoise habitat include:

  • Using tools and equipment allocated solely for the purposes of cleaning out the tortoise environment and nothing else. This includes cloths, sponges, brushes, a washing up bowl that can be placed in the bath, goggles and face mask, and a box of disposable gloves
  • Remove all excess waste food and any fresh poo on a daily basis. Preventing the build up of daily mess makes the job of the weekly clean less arduous than it otherwise would be
  • The weekly clean should be much more thorough involving
    • A full substrate replacement
    • Cleaning of all hard items (water and food dishes etc) with warm soapy water
    • Discarding of any heavily soiled items such as branches used as scenery
    • Inspecting the habitat for structural integrity so that the tortoise cannot escape
    • If you use your bathtub to clean items, ensure that it too is thoroughly cleaned afterwards, ideally with bleach

Do Tortoises Bite?

Despite their docile appearance, tortoises are animals like any other, and a big part of being an animal involves self preservation and defence against predators.

Experts believe that tortoises aren’t especially social creatures, and are quite happy in their own company. This makes them ideal as pets, but it also explains why they can be quite aggressive if they feel their position or wellbeing is being threatened.

It’s quite common for a pair of tortoises kept in captivity to fight, especially a pair of males, so be weary if you have a male already and plan on getting another one, you might want to keep a physical barrier between them!

It’s also quite common for males to get very ‘bitey’ when they’re in the mood for ‘love’. As it turns out, biting is all part of the mating ritual with tortoises – the male snaps his jaws at the female’s behind to make her withdraw her legs so that he can mount her. How romantic eh?!

The upshot of this is that a male kept in captivity who finds himself starved of ‘relief’ will try to find other targets for his affections. If your tortoise is kept outside, this could be your ankles or toes, or when you go to pick him up it could be your fingers that take the hit.

Whilst tortoises don’t have teeth, don’t be fooled into thinking they aren’t capable of giving you a nasty nip, a tortoise bite is known to draw blood on occasion. Certainly if your male is older example of one of the larger species such as a Spur Thigh, you’ll be all too aware of just how strong they are, acting like a slow moving battering ram pushing away any heavy objects in their path.

Hense it doesn’t come as much of a surprise when larger tortoise are able to give their owners a nasty bite. The good news is that although tortoises can be pretty quick when they want to be, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to get your body part clear of their jaws before any real pain is inflicted. We’re not talking about the lightning fast jaws of a crocodile here!

When it comes to young children on the other hand, you might want to think twice before leaving them in the company of a larger male tortoise. Children are less likely to know what’s coming if a tortoise takes a shining to their little fingers, so at the very least you should never leave them unsupervised, even for a few minutes.

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