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Respiratory tract infections (often abbreviated to RI or RTI by hobbyists and vets) are quite commonly observed in pet turtles exposed to cold air. The symptoms are distinctive, so that identifying a respiratory tract infection is generally not difficult. Treatment is only possible using systemic antibiotics administered by a veterinarian surgeon. Prevention is not difficult and depends largely on providing pet turtles with adequately warm living conditions.
Several different symptoms are typically associated with respiratory tract infections.
Laboured breathing, with audible wheezing in advanced cases.
Mouth kept open and the head held upwards.
Runny nose: excessive mucous production from the nose (rhinitis).
Mucous leaks from the mouth, sometimes forming bubbles when the turtle is on dry land.
Sneezing and coughing.
In addition, turtles suffering from a respiratory tract infection will also show the following symptoms:
Lack of appetite, eventually followed by weight loss.
Unusual activity patterns; often lethargy, but also listlessness.
Aquatic turtles lose balance while swimming.
Any turtle showing signs of respiratory distress such as wheezing or rhinitis should be taken to a vet for examination. The diagnosis is usually confirmed using a choanal swab to sample the mucous that collects at the back of the mouth. This will also allow the vet to determine the best treatment, which will depend on the causative pathogen.
The flu-like symptoms of respiratory tract infections in turtles are very distinctive and not easily confused with any other common reptile disease. However, poisoning may sometimes cause similar symptoms.
Bacteria in the lungs, trachea and nose are most commonly found in respiratory tract infections, in particular Aeromonas and Pseudomonas spp. Other bacteria can also be present as can, in rare case, fungi. The sample taken by the choanal swab will be used to determine the pathogen (or mix of pathogens) involved and from that the vet will choose the most appropriate medication.
The fluid that collects in the lungs as a result of the infection causes respiratory distress. Infected turtles find it difficult to breathe. The fluid in the lungs also makes it difficult for aquatic turtles to swim properly because their buoyancy is altered.
Left untreated, respiratory tract infections can lead to septicaemia. Initially mild respiratory tract infections can also develop into potentially very serious pneumonia. Always remember that untreated respiratory tract infections are usually fatal, particularly where small turtles are concerned.
Respiratory tract infections are most frequently caused by cold air or chilling. Respiratory tract infections are particularly common when turtles are kept in unheated or draughty vivaria.
Other prime causes of respiratory tract infections include insufficient Vitamin A in the diet (hypovitaminosis A), chronic malnutrition, and unhygienic living conditions. Respiratory tract infections can also develop concurrently with other infections.
Treatment consists of improving living conditions while administering a systemic antibiotic. There are no off-the-shelf treatments for respiratory tract infections. The antibiotics most often use are aminoglycoside antibiotics such as amikacin, but this will vary depending on the precise diagnosis. Antibiotics may be administered parenterally (i.e., by injection, typically intramuscularly) and/or with a nebuliser (i.e., as a vapour through the nose).
While the turtle is being treated it is normal to elevate the temperature of the living enclosure to the high end of the preferred range for the species in question. This serves two purposes. Firstly, it stimulates the immune system, helping the turtle fight off the infection. Secondly, it keeps the mucous within the respiratory system more mobile, reducing the congestion and making it easier for the turtle to get rid of excess mucous by sneezing or coughing.
It is very important to ensure that the turtle's nose and mouth are kept clean. Mucous and saliva should be wiped away using a damp tissue or swab.
Living conditions must be optimised as well. Ensure that the turtle has access to a basking site with a UV-B lamp, a balanced diet with lots of vitamin-rich green foods, and clean water. Vitamin supplements are highly recommended. Some vets will administer vitamin supplements as part of the treatment.
Some turtles may go off their food when sick, in which case force-feeding will be required if the turtle has already lose a substantial amount of body weight. Force-feeding animals is never easy and done clumsily can cause more harm than good. Discuss a suitable method and what foods to use with your vet. Do not improvise!
Since hobbyists can do nothing to treat respiratory tract infections without veterinary help, prevention is critically important. By far the most common cause of respiratory tract infections in pet turtles is cold, either though not being in a warmed enclosure at all, or else by being exposed to cold draughts that blow through the otherwise adequately heated vivarium.
All turtle vivaria should have a secure hood that keeps out draughts but still lets in sufficient air for proper ventilation of the living space underneath. Open-topped vivaria are not an option where air temperature is below the optimum living conditions of the turtle being kept.
LCD thermometers are a cheap and convenient way to ensure your turtles are adequately warm. Place one against the watery side of the vivarium below the waterline, and another nearer the top of the tank above the waterline. These will measure the water and air temperatures respectively. Obviously terrestrial turtles (tortoises) will only need a single thermometer that measures air temperature.
Though the optimal temperature range will vary with the species being kept, the popular red-ear slider Trachemys scripta elegans needs a water temperature of about 25-28Ë°C/77-82Ë°F and an air temperature of not less than 20Ë°C/68Ë°F. Terrestrial turtles typically need air temperatures between 20-25Ë°C/68-77Ë°F.
Vitamin A is critically important to the health of
captive turtles. A well balanced diet should provide adequate levels of
Vitamin A, but there are also many different types of commercially
available supplement that can be used as necessary.