Pet Turtle Disease Could Spread to Humans

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A researcher has identified the first Australian case of a captive turtle being infected with a highly contagious disease, which has the potential to spread to humans.

If let unchecked, the disease could have a huge impact on Australia native species.

The research will be presented at the Australian Veterinary Association's Unusual and Exotic Pets Annual Conference on Sunday.

Debbie Bannan, a second year veterinary science student from James Cook University in Townsville, said she discovered the disease on an Emydura macquarii, a common species of pet turtle, which was brought to a vet clinic where she was volunteering.

She said the turtle presented with a lesion on its front forelimb, which they thought was an isolated inflammation of the bone and could be treated by amputating its limb and flipper.

"It started to rehabilitate really well," said Bannan. "But three months after that it rapidly went downhill and reluctantly we had to euthanize it."

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Bannan said when they conducted a post-mortem, they found the turtle had a bacterial disease, called mycobacterium, that had spread throughout its entire body.

"Mycobacterium is much like staph on human skin, and it can be carried by lots of animals."

The bacterium isn't pathogenic until it enters the body, through air passages, cuts or the intestines, she said.

Bannan said mycobacterium doesn't usually affect healthy animals, but it can have serious consequences for animals that are immuno-compromised.

She said treatment for mycobacterium in captive turtles can be lengthy and costly.

"It can take six to 12 months and it's not always successful."

Once the bacterium has spread throughout the body, the turtle will most likely need to be euthanized, she said.

But what concerns Bannan about her research, is that there are no previously recorded cases of mycobacterium in captive turtles in Australia.

"If there is no literature it means it's harder for vets to identify and treat quickly," she said.

Bannan is concerned the disease could transfer to species in the wild.

Often people buy turtles because they're "very cute" when their young, but people find they don't have room for them when they grow and throw them into nearby river or water way, she said.

"They can survive there and then become a threat to native species in the wild."

Bannan said mycobacterium can also transfer to humans.

She said there are reported cases of children being infected with mycobacterium from their pet turtle.

"It can get in your cuts and cause a lesion."

But Bannan said it is unlikely to make humans sick if they're fit and healthy.

"It's no Hendra virus," she said.

Bannan said the same risk applied to other pets.

"It is unlikely they will get sick if they are fit and healthy."

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Veterinary nurse Sonia Sim, of Deception Bay Veterinary Clinic in Queensland, which specializes in the care of reptiles, said captive turtle are prone to bacterial and fungal skin infections because they're often kept in tanks, which can be a breeding ground for pathogens if the water isn't changed regularly.

She said its important pet owners ensure their turtle has clean water, a balanced diet and access to UV light to prevent it being infected with harmful bacteria.

"We encourage people who keep them in tanks indoors to get them outside a few times a week, which helps to dry out their skin and shell and keep them healthy."

Bannan said more research needs to be done on captive turtles to determine if the entire species is at risk of mycobacterium infection, or just those animals that are unwell.

She said her research demonstrates that mycobacterium can present itself in different ways.

"Veterinarians should look beyond a lesion or a node."