VCA Animal Hospitals

Turtles – Box - Diseases

What are some of the common diseases of pet turtles?

turtles-box-diseases-1Common conditions of pet turtles include Vitamin A deficiency, respiratory diseases, abscesses, shell infections and fractures, and parasites.

What are the signs of these diseases?

Vitamin A deficiency (hypovitaminosis A) occurs from feeding turtles an inappropriate diet. Turtles fed iceberg lettuce, an all meat diet, or poor quality commercial diets are likely to develop hypovitaminosis A. Lack of Vitamin A produces changes in the epidermis (outer layer of the skin), and in the mucous membranes and mucus-producing glands of the mouth, eyes and upper respiratory tract. Symptoms of Vitamin A deficiency include a lack of appetite, lethargy, swelling of the eyelids (often with a pus-like discharge), swelling of the ear (actually an ear abscess) and respiratory infections.

In turtles, most respiratory infections are caused by bacteria and often are secondary to a Vitamin A deficiency. Turtles with respiratory infections may have excess mucus in their oral cavities (seen as bubbles in the mouth), nasal discharges, lethargy, loss of appetite, open-mouth breathing, and wheezing, and may stretch the neck out with each breath.

An abscess is a pus-filled swelling within a tissue of the body. In pet turtles, abscesses appear as hard tumor-like swellings anywhere on or in the pet's body. Reptile pus is usually very hard and dry with the texture and consistency of cottage cheese. Abscesses often occur in the ears of turtles, and they appear as a large swelling at the side of the head just behind the eye. Abscesses in turtles are often related to vitamin A deficiency.

Shell infections (shell rot) are often encountered in turtles. These bacterial or fungal infections are often secondary to trauma, burns, or bites. Some of these infections can penetrate deep into the body of the shell, causing deep ulcers or pitting on the body of the shell. Remember that the outer (keratin) layer of the shell protects the live bone underneath; the inner organs of the turtle are located beneath the shell, which is an extremely important form of protection.

Internal parasites, such as roundworms, are common in pet turtles. In most cases, parasitic infections cause no clinical signs; they are detected on a routine fecal examination. In severe infestations, intestinal parasites may cause diarrhea or weight loss.

How can I tell if my turtle is sick?

"More commonly, signs of illness are non-specific, such as a turtle with anorexia (lack of appetite) and lethargy"

Signs of disease in turtles may be specific for a certain disease, such as nasal discharge in the case of a respiratory infection. More commonly, signs of illness are non-specific, such as a turtle with anorexia (lack of appetite) and lethargy, which can be seen with many diseases. If your pet turtle shows ANY deviation from normal, you should be concerned and schedule an immediate evaluation by your veterinarian.

How are turtle diseases treated?

Vitamin A deficiency is treated with either oral or injectable Vitamin A. Treatment should only be done under veterinary supervision as hypervitaminosis A, a condition resulting from the incorrect usage and over-dosage of Vitamin A, can occur. Vitamin A deficiency indicates that your turtle's diet has to be corrected or improved.

Respiratory infections are most often caused by bacteria. Many of these turtles also have Vitamin A deficiency that requires treatment. Your veterinarian may want recommend radiographs (X-rays), blood tests and cultures to determine the cause of the infection. Treatment for respiratory infections involves antibiotics, which may be given orally, as injections, or possibly as nose drops. Sick turtles may require intensive care, including fluid therapy and force-feeding in the hospital.

Abscesses are treated surgically. The abscess is opened, the pus is drained and the affected tissue is flushed with a medicated cleansing solution. A culture of the abscess may be needed to determine the type of bacteria that caused the abscess. Topical medication, oral or injectable antibiotics may also be required.

"It is important that you seek immediate veterinary care if there is any deviation from normal in your pet box turtle."

Shell fractures can usually be repaired by your veterinarian. Infections can be challenging to treat but usually involve identifying what type of organism (bacteria or fungus) is causing the problem, thoroughly cleaning the shell and using the appropriate antibiotic.

Parasites are treated with the appropriate deworming medication. The type of parasite identified on the microscopic fecal examination will determine which drug is needed.

In summary, it is important that you seek immediate veterinary care if there is any deviation from normal in your pet box turtle.

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