The first time I saw a "slider" on a menu I thought the restaurant was serving up a new recipe for turtles. I’m a vegetarian, so you’ll have to excuse my ignorance about the various forms that hamburgers have taken since my meat-eating days. Today, I’m definitely more familiar with the "red-eared" version of the slider — a popular type of pet turtle — than I am with burgers.
As strange as it may sound, red-eared sliders also have something to do with your mouth. The relationship involves a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulation, commonly referred to as the Four Inch Turtle Law, which bans the sale of turtles, tortoises, and terrapins with a carapace (shell) length of less than four inches for use as pets.
Why, you may be asking, would the government promulgate such an odd rule? The goal is to protect children from the disease salmonellosis. Reptiles, including turtles, commonly carry Salmonella bacteria on their bodies, and young children like to put small objects — and their hands — in their mouths … need I say more?
Salmonellosis is a real concern. It is especially debilitating to young children, often causing bloody diarrhea, severe dehydration, and even septicemia — a potentially fatal type of blood infection. Turtles are not the only type of animal that can pass Salmonella on to kids. In fact, federal health officials have issued a warning advising parents of young children to avoid buying African dwarf frogs as pets. A three year old outbreak of salmonellosis linked to these critters has sickened more than 240 people. Sixty-nine percent of the cases were in kids under the age of 10.
Back to red-eared sliders. They can make interesting pets, but common sense hygiene is essential, even with the bigger specimens that are legally available for purchase as pets. Always wash your hands thoroughly after handling any animal or cleaning its enclosure. Supervise a child’s interaction with pets and enforce hand washing rules when playtime is over.
Don’t commit to owning a red-eared slider lightly. Like all pets, they require a substantial investment of time and money. Sliders need a large aquarium to call home (they grow to be around 10 inches in length as they mature) complete with a heated pool and water filter (frequent water changes are still necessary), a place to bask and lay eggs, access to full spectrum UV light and incandescent light or other ambient heat source, and an appropriate mix of plants, insects, worms, fish, turtle pellets, and a vitamin/mineral supplement to eat.
Red-eared sliders can live to be 30 years old or more. Are you ready for a pet that will be around for that long? If you are, consider adopting from a turtle-rescue that takes in abandoned or relinquished individuals. Unwanted sliders have inundated these organizations to the point that some are reluctant to take in more. Help ease the glut if you can.
Dr. Jennifer Coates