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Turtle Health

Last Updated: 3/22/08

Introduction
Eye Problems - Conjunctivitis (goopy) and/or swollen eyes
Shell and Skin Problems - Fungus, soft shells, discolored shells, deformed shells, cracked shells, and shedding
Nose and Respiratory Problems - Discharge and wheezing, upper respiratory infection and giving Baytril injections
Digestive Problems - not eating and abnormal feces
Reproductive Problems - egg binding, laying problems, and prolapses
Parasites - Botflies and worms
Turtle Health Links

This page pertains to aquatic turtles and box turtles. You may notice that this page brings information from my box turtle, hatchling turtle, and former health pages together. For that reason, it may not read smoothly with repetitions and such. I am sorry I did not clean it up all the way.

On my box turtle care page there is some health information about them but much of that is copied to this page.


Introduction

While I am NOT a turtle expert, I get so many question about turtle health I thought I had better write it down here instead of answering the same questions over and over!

Go to a vet if your turtle has a serious problem. See the sections on turtle books and turtle sites for more information.

This page includes information from my various turtle pages (all the health stuff) plus more. So, you may read repetitive information from my other pages.

List of normal turtle occurrences that are not normally cause for alarm:

Some common problems include fungus, shell rot, swollen eyes, respiratory tract infections, and injuries. Shell rot will give the shell a strange color, it may be spongy, and it may produce a discharge when squeezed. These rotted areas must be removed and covered in antibiotics with the turtle kept dry except to drink and eat. If the turtle has a bubbling or runny nose, swollen eyes, and trouble breathing, it may have a respiratory infection. If keeping the turtle warmer (85 to 90 degrees F) does not work, go to a qualified vet. Respiratory infections are very deadly and injections of Baytril (enrofloxacin antibiotic) may be needed. Injuries should be treated with an antibiotic with the turtle kept out of the water except to eat and drink. Do not keep a turtle with an open wound outside as flies may lay eggs in the wound. Be sure to determine what caused the injury and correct the problem.

Additives:

This section is from my turtle feeding section but has some relevance here.

There are various additives that your turtle may need including calcium, vitamins, shell aids, and shed aids. Calcium, vitamin liquids, and medications can be added to water directly but only work if the turtle drinks it. Other medications are topical, and some may have to be force fed (be sure you know what you are doing). Dry vitamins, calcium powders, etc. can be dusted onto crickets and other insects. You can make turtle "meatloaf" to give them their vitamins by combining one pound of raw lean ground beef with 1 teaspoon of calcium carbonate and one tablespoon of reptile vitamins. I do not see why you could not add some finely chopped vegetables or other turtle foods to the mix too. Freeze and later thaw a small portion to use as needed.

A sick turtle can be soaked in a half inch of warm water with Vitadrops (vitamins sold for birds and small animals). Even if the turtle does not drink any, there is a slight chance that some may be absorbed through the skin.

You can also provide calcium blocks and/or cuttlebone for the turtles. This allows the turtles to not only get calcium at their leisure but also to trim their beaks.


Eye Problems

Conjunctivitis:

Conjunctivitis is goopy eyes. It often goes along with swollen eyes (below) but sometimes occurs by itself. This is a VERY common problem. It should be treated the same as if the eyes were swollen (they may be headed that way).

Swollen Eyes:

A baby painted turtle photo sent 5/11/05 by Bobbie showing swollen eyes.

If a turtle's eyes are swollen, often shut, they either have an infection (conjunctivitis) or a Vitamin A deficiency. Either way, they again will require antibiotics to recover. It will NOT get better on its own. A turtle with swollen eyes will stop eating and become listless and eventually die without treatment. If the infection is severe, the eyes may have to be lanced, something ONLY a professional should ever do. The antibiotic of choice for my vet was triple antibiotic with neomycin, polymyxin B sulfates, and bacitracin zinc.

Swollen eyes usually are due to a vitamin deficiency (Vitamins A and/or D). Turtles need plenty of Vitamin A for their eyes from Vitamin A and B-carotene which are provided in meats (as Vitamin A) and caretonoid-rich foods like mango, carrots, sweet potato, tomatoes, etc. I test for Vitamins A and D in foods as part of my job as a chemist so I know which foods are good choices. Reptiles including turtles should also have their diets supplemented with reptile vitamins by coating some of their food in store-bought reptile vitamin dusts. UV radiation from full spectrum natural sunlight or full spectrum fluorescent lights is needed for turtles to make Vitamin D. If turtles do not get the proper lighting or diet, their eyes will swell up and often seal shut. If changing to a good diet and lighting does not fix the problem, then antibiotics will have to be applied (triple antibiotic). Sometimes conjuntivitis (infected eyes) is not related to diet or lighting but that is more rare. In severe cases, a vet may have to lance pus out of infected eyes.

There is a new product to treat swollen eyes due to Vitamin A deficiency which is basically an eye drop with Vitamin A in it. It is called Zoo Med Repti Turtle Eye Drops. Here is a link to Drs. Foster & Smith which is one place that sells it.

All reptiles need two kinds of light sources. The first is an incandescent lamp for basking that produces heat. Being cold-blooded, all reptiles need to warm themselves up via the sun or incandescent lamps (or ceramic heat emitters). I use a 100 W daylight during the day and a 75 W black night light during the night. The other light required is fluorescent full spectrum lighting with UV rays OR natural sunlight. The UVB rays are especially needed to allow the turtle to process enough Vitamin D. Vitamin deficiencies (A and D mostly) are manifested as swollen, oozing eyes and malformed shells for the most part. If those things show up, check the lighting situation. Since I only had Snappy for a short time, I wanted a cheap fluorescent fixture (I had lamps but no spare fixture). I ended up buying the new ESU Reptile Slimline Reptile Fixture with Super UV Lamp for $20 from Drs. Foster & Smith. It even included the lamp which itself normally sells for $20 so it was a great deal for me. They also sell the fixtures I used for the incandescent heat lamps for Snappy and my lizard, Einstein. Such fixtures should be ceramic where the bulb goes due to the high heat. I ran Snappy's lights from about 6:30 am to 6:30 pm daily so it is about half daytime, half night time.

If you do not have access, resources, or money for lighting for a turtle, then put the cage/tank where it will receive natural sunlight for part of the day (be sure it does not overheat either though).


Shell and Skin Problems

Fungus, Shell Rot, Soft Shells, and Discolored Shells:

Fungus is a white fuzzy growth when on the turtle's skin, usually at the site of an injury such as a cut or lost toe. Fungus on the shell may cause the other problems below. Shell fungus may be white but is normally more of a gray or green color and not fuzzy but more pasty. Add 1/4 of a cup of aquarium salt per 5 gallons to irritate and hopefully kill fungus. The addition of sulfa drugs such as those sold at pet stores under the name "Dr. Turtle" also should help kill fungus. Here is one source that sells Dr. Turtle. They also now sell a Sulfa dip by Zoo Med to treat bacteria and/or fungus.

Turtles can get shell rot (bacterial) or shell fungus. A vet should look into it. A wild box turtle we had, Freddie, had some slight shell fungus (was green around some torn scute covers) that was treated with 1% silver sulfadiazine.

Salt helps to suppress fungal infections which are very common. A tablespoon per 2-5 gallons is good for turtles for normal use (more if there is a problem). Baby turtles shed quite a bit. It may be mistaken for fungus but it is not. Gently rub the turtle with a soft toothbrush to remove the loose skin if you want to but it is not necessary as it will fall off. Do NOT treat a hatchling or baby for fungus (with a turtle fungal medication) if you think it might just be normal shedding. It can be hard to tell as fungus is very common in adult turtles, usually at the site of a injury.

Deformed Shells:

Shells may be deformed due to birth defects caused by genetics or problems during incubation, physical injury, being kept in too small a home, lack of full spectrum (or natural) light, and/or nutritional deficits. One person sent me a photo of a young turtle where the edge of the shell was all turned up. This was due to lack of vitamins, lack or light, and poor living conditions. Shell deformations may improve with proper vitamins and care but the turtle most likely will always have some deformation.

Jason sent these photos on 2/4/07 of his young red-eared slider that had a deformed shell. We discussed ways to improve Cursor the turtle's environment, light, and feeding so hopefully he got better. He had had the turtle for four months at the time of the photos.
Deformed red-eared slider - top view
Deformed red-eared slider - right side, in hand

A turtle owner with 13 turtles at the time posted photos of some turtles with deformed and curled shells on my forum. Go here to see those.

Cracked Shells:

Minor cracks usually will heal on their own. Adding a little antibiotic to the area prevents infection. For large cracks, please take the turtle to a turtle vet or rehabilitator. They can do amazing things these days with shell patches, glues, etc. so that turtles who you would not imagine surviving (normally we are talking about turtles hit by cars) actually do.

Shedding:

Turtles naturally shed both their skin and their scutes (outer layers of their shells). Excessive shedding may be a sign of illness or that the water is nasty or even toxic.


Nose and Respiratory Problems

Discharge and Wheezing:

Nasal discharge and trouble breathing (wheezing) as well as blowing nose bubbles is usually a sign of an upper respiratory infection.

Upper Respiratory Infection and Giving Baytril Injections:

This is very common for all box turtles and also for aquatic turtles. A turtle with an upper respiratory infection will usually have bubbles coming from his/her nose, be listless, not eat, and make strange lung noises. While common, this is also VERY deadly. Treatment is 10 days of injections of Baytril (enrofloxacin) liquid into the front legs. To do this, you must consult a vet to get the antibiotic and the proper dosage. Do not guess on the dose. To do an injection, you need two people. One person uses their left hand to hold the turtle and their right hand to put a think piece of cardboard between the turtle's head and leg being shot. They tilt the turtle so it is at a 45 degree angle with its head down. Usually, the turtle will then stick its head out. The other person grabs the leg in question when it comes out, forcibly as the turtle will pull back hard. The turtle will also bite, hence the cardboard shield. The needle is inserted between the little plates on the leg, pulled out slightly once in to be sure there is no blood, and then the proper dosage is injected into the leg.

Tess e-mailed me the following on 10/20/03: "...I actually give shots by myself. It is less traumatic for the turtle. One person is the bad guy, not two :) I pin the front leg of the turtle against its bottom shell and give the shot quickly between the scales into the muscle. They cannot bite me because my hand is away from the head. I dilute the Baytril with Saline solution so there is less sting."

Johnna on 9/6/07 asked me about the proper dosage of Baytril for turtles. I, of course, suggested consulting a vet. I had to look it up. If you do not understand what it means to have a dosage of 1 mg/kg (one milligram of the drug per kilogram weight of the animal), then certainly do not do this yourself. The dosage is apparently 5 to 10 mg/kg of Baytril (which is a brand name for enrofloxacin) once per day by injection or 10 mg/kg daily orally. That comes from these web sites:
Common Reptile Drugs and Dosages
Comparison of Injectable Versus Oral Enrofloxacin...


Digestive Problems

Not Eating:

A turtle may stop eating if it is not feeling well, if it is a female carrying eggs, if it does not like the food being offered, or if it is too cold. See this section on my turtle feeding page for questions to ask if a turtle is not eating.

Abnormal Feces:

Abnormal feces may be an indication of improper diet or an ill turtle.


Reproductive Problems

Egg Binding:

Sometimes female turtles cannot get eggs out of their bodies. This may occur if there are too many, they crack, or the turtle is otherwise ill. A vet is needed to do x-rays to verify the problem. I am not sure how the eggs are extracted but it requires a vet. See this section for more on turtle egg laying.

Laying Problems:

Some female turtles may have trouble developing eggs, laying eggs, or properly placing eggs. If the female is mature, healthy, and has bred, and yet no viable eggs are obtained, consult a vet. Turtles who do not get enough calcium in their diet will have eggs that break during or after laying. Be sure mature female turtles have enough calcium in their diet. See this section for more on turtle egg laying.

Prolapses:

There are a few types of prolapses which means things protruding out the turtle that should not be. One is an intestinal prolapse, the other is a penile prolapse. An intestinal prolapse can be caused by a turtle eating gravel, improper diet, constipation, parasites, or other reasons. That type is not likely to improve on its own and normally requires surgery.

Male turtles may have their reproductive organs prolapse which is when the penis comes out of the body and stays that way. Usually it goes back in though. Here are some links on the subject.

Prolapse information
A turtle with profound prolapse pre- and post-surgery
A tortoise with profound prolapse pre- and post-surgery
Hemipenes - while geared towards lizards, this page has some good descriptions that are relevant


Parasites

Botflies and Maggots:

Wild box turtles as well as captive ones that are outside often get botfly. Aquatic turtles can also get them. These show up as large bumps, usually around the head and legs. If the bump is over the ear, it may be an infected ear drum which needs lancing. If the bumps are elsewhere, they are most likely botflies which are larvae of the botfly (a single maggot) under there. The area has to be lanced and packed with antibiotics by a vet or professional turtle rehabilitator. Turtles are also prone to regular fly maggots if they have an open wound. A female fly will lay eggs in any open wound. The eggs are like tiny grains of rice and should be flushed out if seen before hatching. Once hatched, the maggots will eat the live turtle's flesh and have to be flushed and picked out by hand, the wound being packed with antibiotics. While one or two botflies probably will not kill a turtle, many of them or a single infestation of regular maggots (that is a mass of larvae) can easily kill even a healthy turtle.

Worms:

Turtles (like most animals) can have intestinal worms. Over time, worms can expend a lot of the turtle's energy to feed them. Some worms may be found protruding from the vent of a turtle. Fecal samples can be checked by the caretaker or a vet and a dewormer prescribed.


Turtle Health Links

Most of these sites are specific to certain species but a lot of the information applies to all turtles (aquatic and box).

Snapping Turtle Health

Box Turtle Health

Box Turtle Health

The Box Turtle Manual Health Diagnosis Chart

Aquatic Turtle Health

Turtle Ranch Links - includes vet and rescue links

Herp Vet Connection - listings of reptile vets all over the world


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