Common Turtle Illnesses

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This page will present some of the most common illnesses and bacterial infections for aquatic turtles. It is not all inclusive, and I will not provide cure instructions. You will need a qualified reptile vetrinarian for any of these illnesses. Proper nutrition, housing, heat, and sanitation can prevent many (if not all) of these illnesses. That being said...even the most loved and well-cared for turtles can become ill.

Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD)
Respiratory Infection (RI)
Shell Rot
Ear Abscess
Eye Infections
Swollen Eyelids

The below conditions are NOT illnesses, they are just common things that will happen to your turtle that some people think are a sign of illness.

Shedding Skin
Shedding Scutes
Retained Scutes

Metabolic Bone Disease (MDB):

is easy to recognize, and unfortunately its all to common in captive reptiles. What causes MBD is very easily stated…poor husbandry.  MBD is totally preventable with the proper care of the reptile you’ve made a commitment to keep. What creates MBD is the disruption of calcium metabolism, or the wrong calcium-to-phosphorus ratio in the turtles diet. Vitamin D (especially D3) is vital to a turtles health and also to calcium metabolism. Turtles require exposure to UV light to be able to make their own vitamin D3, specifically UVB. This is easily provided to your turtle with UVB bulbs with a 5.0 output.  Basically when there isn’t enough calcium in the body, the body will take it from anywhere it can, i.e. the turtle’s bones. The result is the bones soften which makes them more likely to break, and if it occurs when the turtle is young obvious deformities will occur.

Early signs of MBD include: the shell growing curved upward, the shell will appear thickened, in sever cases there may be signs of resorption (you will no longer see a tail because the body is trying to get the calcium from the bones), the turtles legs will often be thin and deformed, the beak will become duck or parrot shaped, scutes will look raised, and pyramiding will occur. Pyramiding can be described as, the turtles shell looks like a pyramid if you look at it from the front. Pyramiding can also happen from diets too high in protein.

To avoid MBD in your turtle you must provide it with a nutritional diet, calcium, vitamin D, UVB lighting, exercise. Adding Cuttlebone to your turtles diet is an excellent way to make sure there is added calcium.

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Respiratory Infection (RI):

is a common and very deadly illness that, unfortunately, affects many captive turtles. It is also highly contagious to other turtles, and can spread quickly. A visit to the vet,  an x-ray (to verify), and injectable antibiotics are the only way to cure RI. The cause of RI is generally due to improper basking and water temperatures. Exposing the turtle to any drafts and breezes will also increase the chances of contracting RI. There are varying degrees of RI, and the symptoms may also differ.

Listing is probably the most obvious symptom that signals RI. This means that when the turtle is in the water it isn’t floating level, it will be floating lopsided. The turtle may also swim in circles and be unable to submerge. This is due to infection (fluid) in the lungs of the turtle. An immediate veterinary care is needed if your turtle has this symptom.

Other symptoms that can signal RI include: breathing with its mouth open, swollen/puffy eyes, bubbles from the nose (when out of the water), wheezing, frequent coughing and/or sneezing, frequent yawning, loss of appetite, basking an excessive amount of time, sleeping a lot, and mucus coming from the nose.

What should you do if your turtle exhibits any of these symptoms?
buttoncall a reptile vertrinarian to make an appointment
buttonquarantine the turtle from any other turtles
buttonraise the temperatures of both the water and basking area, at least 10° F
buttonmake sure there are no drafts or cold air around the tank
buttonYou may also need to dry dock the turtle for a couple hours each day, depending on the severity of the infection

Dry docking means that you will need to provide a safe, secure, and warm dry environment for the turtle for a couple hours each day. They cannot be out of water all day, and cannot be fed when dry docked. Aquatic turtles cannot produce spit so they need water.

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Shell Rot:

First, a little anatomy lesson.  Turtles protect comes from their shell. The shell is actually bone plates fused together to make a solid looking shell. Covering the bone are what’s called scutes. Scutes are made of keratin, the same substance that makes up our fingernails and hair. The coloration of your turtle comes from pigment melanin which is in the scutes, not the bones. Damage to scutes can result in exposed bone on the turtles shell.

Shell rot is a fungal and bacterial infection on the turtles shell. The organisms colonize small abrasions (or damage) in the scutes.  Water condition and quality can create or aggravate this type of infection.  In severe, untreated, cases they can erode the bone. If they erode the bone enough they can penetrate the turtles body cavity. If this happens other systemic infections can occur and death is likely.

Signs of shell rot include: white, slimy, smelly patches on the turtles shell. There may also be signs of pus. If your turtle shows any of these signs get it to a reptile veterinarian for care immediately. Unless you have a lot of experience I do not recommend you attempt any home treatments; shell rot can become fatal rather quickly.

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Parasites are probably the most common problem found in reptiles. The level of parasites carried in captive turtles can be deadly. Since captive turtles are confined to small areas, parasite overload can and does occur. For aquatic turtles parasites are generally in the form of worms and protozoa. Some of the common parasites in turtles include: pinworms, roundworms, and hookworms (same as your dog or cat).

Some symptoms of a parasite infestation could include: lack of appetite, lethargy, diarrhea, weight loss, undigested food in its waste, and in some cases the turtle might spit up its food.

If you suspect your turtle has parasites you will need to call a reputable reptile veterinarian. They will request that you bring a stool sample with you. I'm sure you're in the world will I do that? Well, I'll tell you what I do. I have a turkey baster (with turtle written on it in permanent marker), suck up the waste and put it in a baggie. The joys of having pets. I would not recommend you keep the turkey baster anywhere near the kitchen! Anyway, your vet will more than likely give you some deworming medicine for your turtle. Note of caution...DO NOT allow your vet to prescribe "Ivermectin", it can be fatal to turtles.

I cannot stress enough how important it is to practice good hygiene when keeping turtles. Please WASH YOUR HANDS!

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Ear Abscess:

Ear abscesses can be a common problem with turtles. What you will see is swelling on the side of the turtles head. Their ears are protected behind a tympanic membrane and on occasion they get infection and puss build up behind it. Since you aren't going to know there's a problem until the infection is advanced, this problem will require a vet visit. Normally the care will be surgically draining puss from the abscess and antibiotics to be injected. The common cause of this type of infection is due to poor water quality, contaminated water and/or general poor care of the turtle.

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Eye Infections:

Eye infections often begin as a small white spot on the surface of the cornea. An ulcer can be created as the infection progresses, this can cover the entire eye. The cause of bacterial eye infections is generally due to poor husbandry. I can’t stress enough how important it is to keep the turtles habitat clean, and to provide quality foods along with adequate temperatures and UVB. Causes of eye infections can be from RI, foreign material trapped under the eyelid (sand, gravel), physical trauma, or a variety of other problems.

If the turtles eyelids swell due to a bacterial infection, basically the turtle is now blind. This makes it difficult for the animal to find its food which can lead to malnourishment, and in severe cases starvation and death. The bacteria can easily move from the eyes into the nasal passages. If veterinary care isn’t gotten and the infection remains untreated…what started out as what seemed like a simple eye infection can quickly progress to a deadly respiratory infection (RI).

The treatment of eye infections usually consists of injectable antibiotics for aquatic turtles, since topical antibiotics or ointments will wash out.

Typical symptoms of eye infections include:
buttonThe eye will appear puffy
buttonThey eye may be watery
buttonThe conjunctiva and surrounding tissues will be red
buttonThe turtle may frequently rub or scratch at its eye

To prevent eye infections, always keep the water in the turtles tank clean. This means installing a filter large enough to filter the large volume of waste produced by turtles. Do regular water changes 20-25% (50% maximum), and do regular water testing to ensure that pH, ammonia, nitrite, and nitrate levels are within range.

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Swollen Eyelids:

If both eyes are swollen shut, for any reason, the turtle is blind. This makes it difficult for the animal to find its food, which can lead to malnourishment, in severe cases starvation and death.

If one eye is puffed up, but the other isn’t…that normally points to some sort of physical damage. Secondary infections can set in to the eye because of the physical damage. Most times the eye will bulge. Call your vet to get an antibiotic. If the eye remains untreated, the infection can spread, often causing blindness and sometimes it can kill the turtle.

Eye swelling can also be caused by infections of the Eustachian tubes. Eustachian tubes are the tubes connecting the ears and throat. Call your vet.

Eye swelling can also be caused by irritations due to chlorinated water . Cholorine can cause the turtle to wipe or scratch at its eyes. If you have Chlorinated water you should use a dechloriantor sold for fish tanks. If chloramine is present you would want to make sure you remove that as well.

Vitamin A deficiency is one cause of swollen eyes. This deficiency is caused by poor diet. If the vet diagnoses a vitamin A deficiency then a vitamin A shot is normally given immediately, along with instructions on how to improve the turtles diet. This is not something to ignore because other  problems caused by vitamin A deficiency include: kidney damage, and death. If the problem progresses to the feet swelling, the turtle is basically terminal and there isn’t much hope. This condition can be totally avoided by providing your turtle with a quality diet.

One of the biggest problems for many new turtle hobbyists is that they assume the dried pellet foods offered by pet stores are an adequate diet; No they are not! BEFORE you acquire any species of turtle, make sure you know what their dietary requirements are. Most species of turtle are at least partially herbivorous, and need lots of fresh green foods to do well.

The Red Eared Slider is omnivorous but feed largely on plants throughout its life. Juvenile turtles will need a diet containing about 50% plant material…adults are closer to 75% plant material. See the greens page for suitable plant foods.  If your turtle is eating a complete, healthy diet rich in plant foods there should be no need for vitamin supplements (unless prescribed by a qualified reptile vet, or the turtle is ill).

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Shedding Skin: 

If your turtle is healthy then skin shedding is nothing to worry about; it’s perfectly normal. If the skin coming off appears thick or dark, or if the skin underneath looks red…there might be a fungal infection or some other issue; in which case call your reptile vet.

Nearly all reptiles shed their skin. Some shed all at once, some shed in pieces-parts. Aquatic turtles tend to shed in pieces-parts, continually. Turtles will shed skin from their body parts, i.e. their head, tail, and legs.

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Shedding Scutes:

A turtles shell is made up of bone plates that are fused together to make the shell. Covering the bone are overlapping sheets of keratin, which is the same substance that makes up our fingernails and hair. The sheets of keratin are called scutes. A turtle cannot trade in its shell for another one, they aren’t snails or hermit crabs. As the bones of the turtle grows, the scutes do not (for most species of turtles). As the turtle grows, new (larger) scutes are growing with it. The top (smaller) layer of scutes will loosen and peel off. Scute shedding is a totally natural process. Basking helps a turtle shed its loose scutes. When a turtle basks, it is basically sun-bathing. They are able to warm up and dry out. The drying out of the loose scutes is what helps them pop off.

In rare instances, scutes are shed too often. This can leave the bones of the shell exposed and  unprotected, sometimes soft. Excessive scute shedding has been found to be linked to larger problems, such as renal failure.

What you may see is the edges (margins) of the scutes will become cloudy looking. This is normal. As the scute starts to loosen more the rest of the scute may look cloudy. It should not be slimy, smelling, or soft...these symptoms would indicate Shell Rot. You might also see what looks like metallic spots on the scutes. This is generally air trapped under a loose scute.

Do not pick at the loose scutes. It may be tempting, but don't do it. You can cause damage to the underlying new scutes if the old one isn't ready to fall off.

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Retained Scutes:

happens when the outer layer of the scute is not shed for one reason or another. This can be a problem. Retained scutes can trap bacteria and fungi which makes them prone to infection. Retained scutes are more often than not a direct result of poor husbandry. A turtle must be provided a dry basking area at the appropriate temperatures. There must also be sufficient UVB provided, along with good nutrition.

If your turtle is retaining scutes you can try a couple of things.
buttonMake sure the basking area is dry
buttonMake sure the basking temps are appropriate
buttonLower the water temps just a little to encourage the turtle to bask a little longer.
buttonReplace your UVB bulb if its over 6-9 months old
buttonTry feeding your turtle Koi spring/fall pellet food (with wheat germ) for a couple of weeks.  Do not feed this type of food all the time.
buttonIf your turtle still has retained scutes over a long period of time, call your reptile vet.

This is not listed as an illness because it really isn't an illness. But please keep in mind it can lead to illnesses so should not be overlooked or ignored.

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 updated 05/15/2012                                                                                               © 2010-2012 Pam Gigac