Common Health Problems The following is just a basic listing of some of the more common problems
turtles and tortoises are prone to. This is just information to help you
identify the problem your turtle/tortoise is having, not in any way to
avoid a vet visit. If you suspect any health issue in your turtle (both
turtles and tortoises will be referred to as turtles unless otherwise is
specified), get it to a good turtle vet. Upon acquiring a new turtle a
health visit should be scheduled. Not only to have your new pet checked
for health, including a fecal test to rule out parasites, but to make
sure you find a good turtle vet before you need one, and to give the vet
a baseline of health information in case the time ever comes when the
turtle does become ill.
Parasites: Parasites are one of the most common problems found in
reptiles. All reptiles have parasites; however in captivity the levels
carried may become lethal. In the wild turtles are not kept in a confined
area as they are in captivity, therefore they donít become such a
problem. Being confined to small areas they are more prone to have
problems when an overload does occur. This makes them more vulnerable to
Parasites can be in the form of internal worms and protozoa or external
ticks and mites.
Some indications that your turtle may be suffering from the effects of
parasites could be lack of appetite, lethargy, diarrhea, undigested food
in the stool, weight loss and in some cases they may even spit up food.
Some of the more common parasites found in turtles are pinworm,
roundworm, and hookworm. If you see any indication of above symptoms get
your turtle to a vet, or bring a fecal sample to be tested and have your
turtle treated as necessary.
The more common treatments are with the drugs Fenbendazole (Panacur) &
Metronidazole (Flagyl). Never, ever let your vet use Ivermectin to treat
a parasite problem. That drug can be fatal to turtles. Also, if you own
dogs, be very cautious about what de-wormer is used for them. Ivermectin
is commonly used in Heartworm preventative medication. If your turtle has
access to the area where your dog eliminates it may eat the stool of the
dog and indirectly ingest the Ivermectin and can be fatal. I know of
tortoise keepers this has happen to. For this reason our dogs are treated
with Interceptor, which does not contain Ivermectin.
Itís extremely important to practice good hygiene when keeping turtles.
Be sure to keep enclosure clean. Pick up any fecal matter daily and clean
water and food dishes often. Wash your hands after handling any of your
Respiratory Infection: Often those keeping turtles will find their
turtles are suffering the effects of respiratory infections. Many times
the symptoms such as runny nose and swollen eyes are the result of poor
husbandry rather than actual infection, but if left uncorrected will turn
into an infection. Tortoises are often kept way too dry, as are
terrestrial turtles. Although many tortoises come from arid areas, they
spend much time in burrows where humidity is about 70%, so keeping them
in captivity in dry dusty conditions contributes to irritation in the
eyes and throat which triggers the symptoms of a respiratory infection.
If these conditions are corrected early on the symptoms will usually
disappear, but if left untreated the symptoms will worsen. You will see
open-mouthed breathing, called gaping, and often find mucous also coming
from the mouth. If these and/or the above symptoms occur get your turtle
to the vet immediately for treatment. Other symptoms to watch for are
loss of appetite and lethargy.
An aquatic turtle with a respiratory infection will usually swim
lopsided, bask more often and breath with a gaping motion (neck stretched
out) and you will also sometimes hear squeaking or wheezing sounds. It's
not always easy to see bubbles from an aquatics nose, but in some cases
you will. If you suspect infection, a vet visit is in order.
Most respiratory symptoms can be treated with a round of antibiotics and
wonít return if good husbandry is practiced. Avoid overcrowding, keep
substrate slightly damp to avoid dusty enclosure, provide essential
basking areas and avoid drafts.
Shell and Skin Problems: When kept in optimal conditions shell and skin
problems rarely occur. However because turtles are kept in such confined
areas it is imperative to keep those areas clean to avoid any problems.
Fungus is a common problem amongst water turtles. It is usually a direct
result of poor water quality. Keepers are often fooled into thinking if
the water is clear, itís clean. This isnít so. Regular water changes
should be part of the routine of cleaning your turtleís tank. Half of the
water should be removed and replaced with fresh water. Filters should be
cleaned using cool, not hot, water. This allows for beneficial bacteria
to remain in the filter media to help keep your tank water in pristine
conditions. A PH and ammonia test kit is good to keep on hand. Water
temperature should only be as high as recommended for the species kept
and not higher. Often higher temperatures lead to more skin problems and
result in turtles not basking.
Skin fungus can usually be treated with salt baths if caught right away.
Two tablespoons of aquarium salt per gallon of water can be used to soak
your turtle. Place them in just enough water to cover the shell. This
should be done once or twice a day (depending on severity) for about four
or five days.
When a turtle doesnít bask this can lead to shell problems. They need to
dry out the shell and do this by sunning under the heat lamp on a dry
area provided. A turtle kept in inadequate water and not basking will
eventually get shell rot. This problem, if caught early enough is
treatable, but it takes vigilance on the keeperís part to keep it from
returning. Shell rot can take a very long time to heal. A turtle with
shell rot can end up with a systemic infection if that rot is not
treated. Itís imperative to treat shell rot immediately and correct the
conditions that caused it.
Tortoises are also susceptible to shell rot, so itís also important to
kept them from being kept in less than adequate conditions. Always be
sure your turtles have a dry basking area, and keep substrate and water
Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD): This is a condition that is the direct
result of poor husbandry. It results from the effects of poor diet, poor
or no uvb, lack of Vitamin D, and poor calcium to phosphorus ratio.
Pyramiding is a form of MBD which research shows is the result of all of
the above and lack of humidity and exercise. If the onset of MBD begins
when a turtle is young, it will develop obvious deformities. Tortoises
will show raised or stacked scutes on the carapace, overgrown, duck or
parrot like beak and the nails will grow oddly curved out and upward.
They will have splayed legs and have difficulty walking upright. Many are
forced to drag their hind legs because of this difficulty.
Turtles often show early signs of MBD by their shells growing curved
upward, some looking like a saddled shape. They will appear to be
thickened. Box turtles will not have a working hinge, but rather have it
frozen in place. Some will show signs of resorption where you will no
longer see a tail because the body is trying to get the calcium from the
bones. Often the turtleís legs will be thin and deformed. As with
tortoises the beak will also become duck or parrot shaped. Water turtles
will usually show raised scutes, some actually also pyramiding as with
tortoises. Their shells will also become serrated even if they are a
species that normally has a rounded shell.
To avoid MBD itís important to provide a nutritional diet with proper
calcium and vitamin d, give proper uvb lighting (natural sun is best),
plenty of exercise and humidity in the case of land turtles. Providing a
cuttlebone in addition to good diet is a good way to let your turtle
supplement itself with added calcium.
For some examples of MBD visit the following links:
Ear Abscesses: These are most common in box turtles. They appear as large
bulges on either side of the head, where their ears are. The Tympanic
membrane swells and a cyst develop will under it. As the infection
worsens so does the cyst. If your turtle develops an abscess it is
essential to have a veterinarian examine the turtle and determine if
aspiration or lancing of the membrane is necessary. Most often
antibiotics will also be given to the turtle to kill off any infection.
Some vets will send an aspirated culture to a lab for sensitivity
testing. Others will surgically remove the cyst and have that tested, or
may just treat with a broad-spectrum antibiotic. An abscess is very
painful and should never be treated without veterinary supervision.
Hereís a link to a photo of an Eastern box turtle with an abscess:
http://www.turtlerescues.org/gallery2/main.php?g2_itemId=1678 and a
photo of the same turtle after removal of cyst, and healing:
http://www.turtlerescues.org/gallery2/main.php?g2_itemId=1681 and a
photo of the puss removed from the cyst: