While healthy tortoises do not excrete a specific disease-causing substance, as such – like all reptiles, they do often carry the Salmonella bacterium which can cause Salmonellosis, a serious disease which can have potentially fatal consequences if untreated, especially in children. This bacterium is not easily destroyed through the normal 10-day course of antibiotics and a treated animal may remain a symptomatic carrier which continues to shed bacterium into its environment during times of stress.
Therefore, the best option is to treat all reptiles – healthy-looking or not – as potential carriers of Salmonella and to take hygiene precautions when handling them. This means always washing your hands after touching a reptile and even wearing gloves and face protection when cleaning out the reptile’s living enclosure. And make sure that you do not clean the reptile enclosure or any equipment in the family kitchen or bathroom, and only use a disinfectant recommended by your veterinarian. Children should always be supervised and never let them kiss the pet reptile! In addition, if anyone in the family is bitten or scratched by a reptile, seek medical advice to rule out any chance of infection.
While Salmonella is the most common, reptiles can harbour a host of other pathogens. They can carry Campylobacter, which causes serious gastroenteritis, diarrhoea, abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting and fever, and even Tuberculosis, which can be transmitted to humans through scratches and bites, when handling and cleaning the cage of an infected reptile. Then there are the fungal and protozoan organisms (although these are usually only a serious risk to the very young, the elderly and the immune-suppressed) and the external parasites, such as ticks and mites. While these parasites may be harmless to humans in themselves, they can in turn carry diseases that can affect humans, such as relapsing fever and western equine encephalitis virus.
Although tortoises may have been popular choices for pets in the past, reptiles in general do not make good pets for children. Not only do they often require “special needs” care and present a serious potential risk in terms of disease, they also often do not enable interaction in the “cuddly” manner that most children desire. In fact, there are some who believe that tortoises and turtles should not be kept in homes where there are children under six.
So overall, it would be advisable to look at another, more suitable, type of pet for children. But if you DO keep pet reptiles, make sure that children are religious about washing their hands after any handling or contact.