Terrapin threat: Reptiles can pose salmonella risk

None of the 12 shops Channel NewsAsia visited could advise on the health risks associated with the reptiles, or the fact that terrapins carry the salmonella bug.
Dawn Karen Tan, Channel NewsAsia 2 Feb 16;

SINGAPORE: Terrapins are a popular choice when it comes to owning a pet. Costing just a few dollars, these reptiles tend to be brought home and owners would treat them as little more than living toys.

The Red-Eared Slider, for instance, is a factory-farmed species from the United States and it is estimated that since 2006, nearly nine million have been imported into the Republic alone.

However, the fact that these reptiles pose a health risk is less well known. Raffles Medical deputy medical director Michael Lee explained: "They carry a bug known as salmonella - it's passed out and shed through their faeces - and of course coming into contact with humans, we may ingest the bacteria and, in certain levels and amounts, it becomes toxic."

According to Singapore’s Health Ministry, there were a total of 1,957 cases of Salmonellosis in 2015. However, data on the number of cases related to transmission from pet terrapins or other reptiles is unknown.

Doctors said they believe the number of cases in Singapore, rare as they may be, are under-reported. Dr Lee, for one, said it is not common practice for physicians to ask patients if they have terrapins at home as salmonella symptoms are mild in most cases.

“[Patients] always attribute it to something they ate that wasn't very clean or not washing their hands and leave it as that,” he added.

While those exposed may experience symptoms associated with food poisoning, like fever, vomitting and diarrhoea, some infected patients show no obvious signs.

Eight-year-old Beh Jin Kiang is one example. His mother, Mdm Cristie Yong, brought him to see the doctor after a fall in the playground left him with a hairline fracture to his ankle that would not heal.

“It seemed quite bad and swollen. At first, we thought it was just some blood clots, and then it would clear and heal. Then the doctors asked if we have small turtles or frogs at home,” she recounted. The family keeps two turtles at home in a fish tank.

According to the doctors, Mdm Yong's son was suffering from a salmonella infection that he had likely contracted from the pet turtles, and the parents had no idea of the risks when they bought them.

"We bought it from the wet market, so nothing was told to us. The turtles, being so cute, we never thought it would be a carrier of virus or anything," she said.

To fight the infection, Mdm Yong’s son needed three operations on his ankle and many weeks of treatment.


Red-Eared Sliders are regarded as one of the world's 100 most-invasive species, with many countries banning their import and sale. Even in its native United States, cautions about the salmonella connection and strict regulation has been in place since 1975.

Pet shops that sell Red-Eared Sliders are required to display a poster with information and photos to show potential buyers just how big they can grow. A check on 12 shops across Singapore revealed surprising results.

None of the shops have a poster displayed, and when asked about health risks associated with reptiles, shopkeepers were unable to share the less well-known fact of terrapins carrying the salmonella bug.


From the iconic Singapore Botanic Gardens to neighbourhood parks and water bodies like Macritchie Reservoir, there is the belief that releasing animals like birds and terrapins boosts one's “spiritual karma”. Abandoned and vulnerable to being captured or culled, they are left to an unknown fate.

So far, authorities in Singapore are not budging when it comes to repeated calls for a ban on terrapin imports. They have said there is not enough evidence to suggest their presence has or will impact Singapore's wildlife.

Tougher regulation about responsible ownership may give buyers a pause for thought, and perhaps serve as a reminder that the terrapins are more than just a transient plaything.

Director of Advocacy at the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (ACRES) Tan En said as much, noting that as terrapins grow older, the colour of the shell tends to fade away thus making them less attractive. “So, they are no longer as cute as when you buy them in the beginning. The only responsible thing for people to do if they don't want them is to find somebody to adopt them.”

- CNA/xk