Ask the WWM Crew
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The first thing to understand about these turtles,
all reptiles and in fact fish too, is that they are very stoic
animals. In the wild, their predators prey on the sick and
the weak and so it is not in their interest to show any signs of
sickness if at all possible. In captivity this is most
often seen as a reptile of fish that "looked just fine" until
within a few hours of death. In reality it has been sick
for days, weeks or perhaps even months and yet the initial signs were
so small or so well hidden that it APPEARED to be healthy until it just
.... as people have said ... "suddenly
This is why it is imperative that you check your animals EVERY DAY.
That you check their behavior EVERY DAY.
That you check habitat and
equipment EVERY DAY.
While this sounds like a lot of effort, the truth is that it's in the quality of the work, not the amount of it. Just as these animals are habitual, so you can be. Check the same things for the same signs at the same time every day (or night) and it becomes second nature, convenient and fast. I currently check 15 fish, 21 turtles, 4 iguanas and 43 tortoises in approximately 15 minutes. The focus is on where they are usually, what they are doing usually, how do they do it usually ... and what (if anything) is different today? Since feeding is a daily routine and eating is certainly on their list of daily activities, this becomes the best time. Note who feeds first, how much they eat and what they're willing to do to get it. Note who waits, how long they wait and what they do when it's they're chance to access the food.
An Ounce of Prevention
The second thing to know about reptiles and fish
is that EVERYTHING required to treat an illness is more expensive, more
time consuming and ultimately less successful than a similar human
illness. In addition to the fact that there illness may not be
noticed until it has progressed to a near terminal stage, there are
fewer drugs, fewer treatments and due to the fact that they all have
significantly lower metabolisms than humans (with the possible except
of my brother-in-law) they take longer to show progress and seemingly
AGES to actually heal. Add this to fewer veterinarians that are
schooled in reptiles and fish and you have more than enough reasons to
invest a tiny portion of that time and energy in prevention.
Check your animals EVERY DAY.
Observe their behavior EVERY DAY.
Check habitat and equipment EVERY DAY.
The common illnesses
Soft Shell caused by Improper or unhealthy conditions/improper diet
Fungal Infection caused by Improper or unhealthy conditions/improper diet
Bacterial Infection caused by Improper or unhealthy conditions/improper diet
Swollen eyes caused by Improper or unhealthy conditions/improper diet
Wheezing or bubbly nose caused by Improper or unhealthy conditions/improper diet
Puffy body or face caused by Improper or unhealthy conditions/improper diet
Cuts, Bruises and Bites(*) caused by Rocks, glass, teeth or beaks
--And Odd looking body parts
(*) Note that sharp rocks and glass edges are
themselves an improper & unhealthy condition.
Immediate Treatment - Environment first - ISOLATION and DRY-DOCK
Recognize immediately that the very environment preferred by the turtle, warm and wet ... is also the optimal environment for the growth of fungus and bacteria -- and even if neither are the primary illness, you can be assured that if you leave a sick turtle in a warm, wet environment long enough, fungal AND bacterial will seize the opportunity to take hold and take over. For this reason, the single most immediate treatment for any illness in a turtle is to remove them from their tank, pond or enclosure and place them somewhere warm and dry. Remember that, in the wild, water turtles occupy the habitat AROUND the water as much, if not more than IN the water. Moreover, a turtle in good health can survive months out of water and a sick turtle really needs the rest.
A temporary shelter can be anything from an empty
aquarium to a plastic bin or trash can or even just a cardboard box
with high sides (keep in mind a determined turtle is an incredible
climber). Add a heat source, which can be a regular
electric heating pad (if you're lucky enough to be able to find one
without the annoying 'automatic off' feature) to a light
bulb suspended over head. Ideally you want to achieve a constant
temperature of between 85-87 degrees. Since we are deliberately taking
away the turtle's choice to move from cool to warm, we have to pick
a constant that fits both needs. NOT having to move between
temperature zones and not having to swim or climb is the first step on
giving the turtle the ability to direct his attention more toward
You must also provide UV-A and UV-B light
sources(NOTE 2), which perhaps can be moved from his
original enclosure or -- in the alternative, a minimum of 10 minutes of
direct (NOT filtered through any kind of glass or screen) three times a
APPLY THE ABOVE ISOLATION FOR ALL TREATMENTS DISCUSSED HERE
We are using the term "isolation" to isolate a turtle or even ALL turtles from the environment from which the illness was contracted. All affected turtles can be treated together and we still call it "isolation."
FINALLY! The Common
Soft Shell Sorta defeats the purpose of having a shell, doesn't it?
Far and away the most common complaint is soft shell. In Emydid turtles (Emydid is a fancy way of saying hard-shelled water turtles) have shell material made from the same keratin material as fingernails. An just like fingernails, the material is firm and hard to the touch around the center changing to just a tiny bit flexible around the edges. The brain needs calcium to function. If the brain cannot get enough calcium from the diet, it leeches it from the bones until the bones become too soft and weak to support the body and then eventually the brain stops functioning, at which point the only thing that can be done is to elect it to Congress.
Improper diet, lack of calcium and lack of UV-A and UV-B lighting cause the shell to slowly deteriorate and soften. This is called Metabolic Bone Disease and untreated becomes 100% fatal
Soft Shell is an early sign of illness.
Failure to treat will lead to virtually ALL the illnesses listed below.
1) Isolation treatment as outlined above.
2) Calcium, preferably an injectible form from your veterinarian. Failing that, obtain a calcium tablet from the vitamin section of some store, pure calcium like ground oyster shells if you can get it, but any calcium will do. Crush a pill into a powder and coat whatever food item the turtle will eat with the calcium and feed at least twice a day. Yogurt is also high in calcium and sometimes you can mix the crushed powder in the yogurt. Some turtles will simply eat small pieces of the crushed pill. The critical part is that you get some calcium into him IMMEDIATELY via any method that will work.
Long term: Correcting the diet(NOTE
1) and providing proper exposure to UV-A and UV-B
lighting(Note2) will stop the deterioration and reverse the
MBD if the condition has not advanced to affect other internal
Veterinary care will include injectible Vitamin A, D & Calcium and this is VERY effective in treating even advanced cases. Advanced cases, where the turtle has lost his appetite, etc. are unlikely to survive without veterinary care.
Prognosis: If the MDB is caught early enough that the turtle is still active and eating and therefore can eat the correct dirt and metabolize the vitamins and UV lighting, improvement should be noticed within three weeks and the turtle is able to resume life in a normal habitat within 6 weeks -- PROVIDED that you have corrected the dirty water, incorrect temperature, improper lighting and/or bad diet that caused the illness in the first place.
Fungal infections Why are you picking on me?? I'm a Fungi! (**)
Almost as common a complaint as soft shell is fungus. Tiny white patches on the shell or whitish/gray patches on the skin. Often they can be rubbed off with a cotton swab but reappear within hours. The fungus is present even in a clean environment, but it becomes aggressive when the turtle can not get out of the water, dry out under a heat source and absorb UV light. Fungus is also one of the easiest to treat. You can obtain any number of different antifungal treatments from the local grocery store or pharmacy. Use generic Tolnaflate, Miconazol, Clotrimazole (any of the treatments ending in "azol"). Pick up a small, soft toothbrush while you're there. I have seen fungus successfully treated with common household vinegar as well, but the antifungal treatments are much better and faster.
1) Isolation treatment as outlined above
2) Each day after the bath, dry the turtle off and allow him to become completely dry. Apply the antifungal to all affected areas. For the shell, rub it in with the toothbrush making sure to cover the area around the visible infection as well. For skin and face, use a cotton swab to gently apply it over the affected and surrounding areas, taking care to avoid the eyes and mouth. Apply a second time approximately 12 hours later.
Generally speaking, Veterinary care is not indicated except in the most advanced cases. Improving the conditions and application of topical antifungals is usually as effective as any medical treatment.
Prognosis: You should start to see improvements immediately, as the brushing and swabbing is removing the visible growths, but the infection remains at deeper levels. After 10 days of treatment, if the fungus does not reappear in the skin or shell, the turtle can be placed back in his original enclosure -- PROVIDED that you have corrected the dirty water, incorrect temperature, improper lighting and/or bad diet that caused the illness in the first place.
(**) That joke works better if you read it as Fun-Guy rather than Fun-Gee
Not that it's any funnier ..... just better.
Bacteria Fungi's meaner, uglier brother.
Much like fungus, bacteria also occurs naturally in the turtle's habitat, but unlike fungus it requires more of an opportunity to take hold and take over. Cuts or injuries are common openings as well as more serious and insidious causes: For example, there is a temperature that is warm enough to induce the turtle to eat, yet not warm enough to allow it's body to digest. The food sits in the gut and rots and begets an internal infection. Bacteria can also be secondary to any other illness ... seeing what fun they're having and wanting to join in.
External infections will usually cause an eruption on the skin, a very definite "sore" that will be black, gray, sometimes yellow but ALWAYS a color that clearly appears 'wrong' for the area. Often the wound suppurates (suppurate is a five dollar word for ooze) pus or other fluids. In most cases there are obvious signs of dying skin.
Internal infections will often cause gas pockets that keep the turtle from swimming normally. Note that not ALL gas pockets are from bacterial gas, so this is an indicator only of something abnormal.
A proper treatment for a bacterial infection requires a course of antibiotics prescribed by a veterinarian after he or she has examined the turtle.
Before anything else, resist the temptation to buy antibiotics at the fish store that are sold in paper cards with blister-packed pills. Beyond being of questionable quality in the first place and setting aside for the moment that certain treatments only treat certain bacteria ... the plain fact of the matter is that you couldn't build enough concentration of the chemical in the water to do any good at all! This applies to fish and fish diseases as well. If you ever have the urge to buy & try those antibiotics, do yourself a favor -- go down to the corner of your block and toss two handfuls of $20 bills down the sewer and then come back home and explore the other options. It's cheaper, faster with EXACTLY the same result!
There are people, myself included, that have in the past recommended injectible antibiotics such as Baytril which I use myself from time to time. But I was trained by a good friend who happens to be a world class reptile veterinarian [ he literally wrote the book on Reptile Medicine and Surgery ISBN 9780721693279], I've been doing it for 15 years and even still I don't always get it right. On balance I recommend against it because the injectibles cause burning and necrosis (another $5 word meaning tissue death) of the skin at the site, major pain for the animal and .. as I said before, if you use the wrong drug on the wrong bacteria ... no positive result. In most cases you would be doing more harm than good
1) Isolation Treatment as described above
2) Raising the temperature to 92-95 degrees can often give the turtle's immune system just the boost it needs to fight off the infection.
3) For any external wounds, clean twice a day with
hydrogen peroxide on a swab and then cover with Betadine
(iodine/povodine, etc.). If the turtle retracts and you are
unable to apply the peroxide directly, it is permissible to just
"dribble" it on, provided that you do NOT dribble it on any
place that will run into the eyes, nose or mouth. If you
can't apply the peroxide for this or any other reason, skip this
step and dribble on the Betadine. Try to avoid the eyes and
mouth, but if there is no other way to apply the treatment, apply it
and then hold him up, down or slightly to the side as needed so that it
drains away from the face.
Prognosis: Without proper veterinary treatment, the prognosis for a bacterial infection is not good unless it is extremely superficial. Our procedure is to remove the turtle from an environment that promotes bacterial growth to one that hinders it, all the while allowing the turtle to rest and help his own immune system to better cope with it. After 14-20 days of consistent treatment and the turtle showing positive signs of health such as activity, appetite, general appearance -- assuming any external wounds have at healed or at least been covered completely in scar tissue, he can be returned to his original environment -- PROVIDED that you have corrected the dirty water, incorrect temperature, improper lighting and/or bad diet that caused the illness in the first place.
Swollen or closed eyes Beware the Eyes of March
Eyes that are swollen or swollen shut are one of the most easily preventable and most easily treatable illnesses seen in turtles. Proper diet(Note1), proper lighting(Note2), proper hygiene andthe problem goes away. It is almost always caused by hypovitaminosis (a $5 word meaning lack of vitamins), specifically vitamin A which they get from a proper diet and Vitamin D which is synthesized from natural sunlight or proper UV lighting.
Unless you're screening the movie Sister Act 2
-- in which case closed eyes is merely good
1) Isolation Treatment as described above.
2) If the turtle is eating, coat a few Koi Pellets with a drop or two of Cod Liver Oil and attempt to get it to eat during it's bath time. Another possibility is to offer a live earthworm (both pet stores and bait shops sell Night crawlers) that can also be coated in the Cod Liver Oil. Sometimes a small (very small) piece of cow's liver from the grocery store. Liver, as you have guessed, is high in Vitamin A and we need to get some of it into him. Turtles that won't eat often have to be forced, but the challenge of forcing the mouth open and holding it open in order to get a dropper with a single drip of Cod Liver Oil -- all while not hurting the turtle -- is a significant one.
Treatment of the eye itself with Liquid Vitamin A drops may be of slight value -- read again -- SLIGHT value, but it does not in any way replace delivering the vitamin into the turtle's system.
Exposure to direct sunlight for at least 15 minutes, twice or three times daily is necessary. At the level we are trying to build in the body in a short time, the typical UV light source that is adequate in prevention is too little and too late for treatment. Most UV lamps are only effective at 6 to 8 inches and lose more than 80% of even THAT effectiveness through any for of glass , so any exposure to UV lamps is likely to be an intolerable heat source. If artificial lighting is the only source available care must be taken not raise the temperature of the isolation container while at the same time, leaving the lights on for 12 to 18 hours per day.
Veterinary care would consist of injectible Vitamin A & D as well as the care instructions above. As long as the turtle is active and eating and can therefore eat the proper diet and metabolize the UV, a trip to the vet may not be necessary.
Prognosis: Unless the vitamin deficiencies have debilitated the eye (or any other part of the turtle) to the point where secondary fungal AND bacterial infections have set in ... if essentially all you have is a blind or partially blind turtle, the addition of vitamin A and D (via sunlight) will start to show positive signs in 2 to 3 days and the turtle should be able to resume a normal life after 7 complete days of treatment -- PROVIDED that you have corrected the dirty water, incorrect temperature, improper lighting and/or bad diet that caused the illness in the first place.
Here's a better article on eye conditions. It's more complete and the guy who wrote it is smarter than me.
Wheezing or bubbly
Not a happy feeling
Wheezing sounds, labored breathing and bubbles from the nose are signs of a respiratory infection and a clear indicator for a veterinary examination. Among many reasons it's hard to be a turtle, they have no ability to cough or sneeze so any fluid that accumulates in the lungs becomes life threatening.
This is a very serious condition in any reptile
1) Apply Isolation Treatment as described above
2) Raising the temperature to 92-95 degrees can often give the turtle's immune system just the boost it needs to fight off the infection. Proper UV lighting is critical and as always, 15 minutes of full exposure to natural sunlight twice or three times daily is essential.
This symptom is a classic indicator for Veterinary care. A course of injectible antibiotics such as Baytril is clearly the best treatment and almost assures a positive outcome.
Swollen or Puffy body or face. An emotional breakup and binge eating ?
The number one cause of a swollen body or face is simply obesity. A common mistake of the caregiver is to equate feeding with care and wanting to provide excellent care ... over feeding. In fact obesity due to over feeding (and therefore complications from that) is close to the number 1 killer of all pets. Number 2 is commonly known to be malnutrition, but that is almost universally the result of the WRONG foods.
An animal that gets sick from simply not getting enough of an otherwise balanced diet is a rare, rare occurrence.
The diagnosis is, of course, that the swelling and puffiness develop over a long time.
Obesity: This is also one of the few cases where the treatment and the correction are one and the same: Let him be a little hungry. Feed a turtle no more than he can eat in 4-5 minutes 3 times a week.
Prognosis: Obesity can cause many significant internal changes that do not always correct once the diet is corrected. Fatty degeneration of heart, liver, lungs and intestines are all connected to over-feeding and obesity and are not reversed by a more healthy diet but as soon as the diet/portion problems are corrected and the weight begins to recede, the overall health will still improve.
Swollen or Puffy body or face. An overnight thing ?
In cases where the swelling is sudden and severe, it's called EDEMA (which just means swelling of the tissues) and is normally considered a symptom of something else as opposed to an illness itself. Edema can be caused by liver, cardiac or kidney problems as well as fungal, bacterial or viral infections -- none of which can be treated or diagnosed without a proper veterinary examination.
1) Isolation Treatment as described above.
Since Edema is a symptom and not a disease, it is beyond the scope of any guide to suggest a diagnosis. Worse, it's usually symptom of an advanced condition. Care by an experienced reptile vet may can detect and treat the underlying cause, but it's usually a Herculean effort and expense.
Prognosis: In the absence of ANY other sign
or symptom of illness, the sudden onset of Severe Edema will rarely
have a positive outcome. If the simple rest offered by the
Isolation Treatment does not afford the turtle the chance to overcome
the underlying condition then the isolation will, at least, ease his
Cuts, Bruises and Bites And Odd looking Body parts
In spite of all of the problems mentioned above, Turtles are among the most rigid and durable of all animals and if we give them a reasonable chance they can survive almost anything. They can bounce back from physical injuries that would kill almost any of us. Usually all they need is a safe, dry place to heal and a promise that we won't let them get hurt like that again.
First Warning: Any physical injury that is causing severe blood loss or exposes bone or any deep oozing wound, should be seen by a veterinarian. Sometimes it is necessary to amputate a severely detached limb in order for the skin to be able to heal over the bone and this is NOT for the inexperienced or squeamish.
1) For any physical injury, Isolation Treatment as above.
2) In the event that it is a limb, face or neck injury where movement causes more injury or more bleeding, you may restrict the movement through any means available. Sometimes, just packing them more tightly in their warm, dry enclosure by adding towels is fine. Sometimes an injured limb can be gently replaced in it's "retracted" position and then the shell wrapped with adhesive tape to hold it in place.
3) For external bacterial infections, wipe twice daily with hydrogen peroxide followed by a coating in Betadine (read bacterial Infections - external). If kept warm, dry and immobile the wound like most likely NOT develop an infection and mother nature will do the rest.
Prognosis: Excellent provided that no secondary infection takes hold and takes over.
Meanwhile: The source of the wound must be traced and corrected. Sharp rocks, glass edges, any kind of protruding filter or other device must be found, examined and steps made to correct the danger.
Dead or dying scutes When good shell goes bad
1) Isolation treatment as described above.
2) Swab the area twice daily with hydrogen
peroxide, let that dry for a half hour and then cover with Betadine
In the absence of any bleeding or secondary infection, usually indicated by odd colored growths and/or bad smells, this one does not normally require Veterinary care.
Which brings us to: Odd
looking Body Parts and what to not do.
From time to time a turtle is found that appears
to have a hernia -- that is to say that it's intestines appear to
be hanging out through it's cloaca (butt). This is, of
course, a matter of most serious concern.
This is not, however, a hernia and that is not intestines.
If the turtle appears to be in distress and you feel you must take action
1) Do NOT attempt to press the organ back inside. Do NOT.
2) Remove the turtle from his normal enclosure and place him in something smooth after having coated the bottom surface with mineral oil if possible or regular vegetable oil if not.
3) Do what you practically can to restrict movement of the turtle.
4) STILL DO NOT attempt to press the organ back inside. Do NOT.
Note 2: Proper lighting
There are three kinds of UV lighting.
UV-B This is the invisible light that is responsible for allowing for the synthesis of Vitamin D and the metabolizing of calcium.
UV-C This is the wavelength that kills most organic things it contacts for sufficient periods. Germicidal bulbs and UV Sterilizers use this type. Can cause severe eye damages if viewed directly.
"Proper" UV lighting
Sunlight that arrives through glass loses almost 85% of it's UV-B.
Sunlight through common window screen loses almost 25% of it's value.
Screened tops should have 1/4 mesh or larger.
Glass Aquariums are simply NOT suited to be used
or left in direct sunlight.
The benefit to exposing a turtle to natural sunlight is matched only by the danger of exposing it to natural sunlight. The turtle MUST be able to escape to someplace dark and cool and if this cannot be assured beyond doubt, it is unwise to expose him to the danger.
With all your might, resist the urge to try fish-store drugs. If you cannot resist the urge, take two handfuls of $20 bills and toss them down the nearest storm sewer! It's faster, cheaper and EXACTLY the same result.
Sulfa Blocks For the same reasons as Antibiotic pills, Sulfa blocks are usually a waste of time and energy. In fact, late at night, if you turn off the pumps and filters, it is often possible to actually hear the fungi and bacteria laughing at the sulfa block.
* A note while editing: I have nothing against vitamin supplements unless they are being used to try to compensate for a bad diet, in which case you are better off to spend the money on a better diet itself.
Likewise, dechlorinated water isn't BAD for turtles and as Neale Monks suggested -- there certainly is no risk in removing chlorine, ammonia and copper if they are present... to which I will only reiterate -- as long as the budget for good lighting and adequate filtering has already been met!
A word about dominant animals and subdominant
In any natural group, there will be dominant animals that simply thrive better than the others. The others, called subdominant animals are always in competition, whether for food, light, heat, human attention, mates, etc. and they never quite do as well -- they don't eat quite as much or quite as often, they don't grow as fast or as big, etc. Within reason this is a normal function of keeping animals in groups and as many a keeper can attest, there is often nothing you can do to equalize this condition. It is very important however, to understand this "pecking order." One is liable to be dominant and then there is number 2, followed by #3, etc. and with each level of sub dominance there is more stress, more competition and less opportunity.
In a situation like this, simply removing the
bully only advances the others but a tiny bit and does not relieve the
This caution is by way of saying that it is not
always possible to ensure the health of all the animals in a group and
sometimes it is necessary to remove some animals from a collection if
they will not thrive.
As long as they DO eat, as long as they get ENOUGH
and as long as they have the space to get away by themselves when the
competition gets too tough, these secondary animals will do just
fine. Again, the key is seeing that they get
'enough' and that is sometimes different than "as much as
The difference between a healthy subdominant animal and a long, slow slide toward illness is often only the difference between the keeper noticing subtle changes and not.
The author is a retired business executive and evil genius with a personality that once caused Dale Carnegie to throw a punch at him. He grew up in Orlando, Fl prior to the coming of the mouse and therefore occupied his young years out in the swamps and forests bringing home all manner of beasts and learning, many times by trial and error, what end of what animal can be safely held.
He currently resides in a suburb of Los Angeles,
Ca with a marine aquarium, 21 assorted Emydid turtles, 25 African
Desert tortoises, 1 very mean Galapagos tortoise, 3 Green Iguanas, 1
Cyclura Iguana, 2 cats and a son who thinks that DAD is a three letter
word that means ATM.
In reading this article you probably have noticed
a rather unusual writing style that trends toward bad jokes, obscure
references, strong opinions and peculiar word choice. Trust me
when I tell you that it's all in your mind, however at the same
time I would like to say
The author wishes to apologize to any and all
people who neither get nor appreciate his humor as well as any and all
people who may be offended but any references in this article.
This includes but is not limited to Insurance Salesmen, brother's
in law, men, women, children, members of any organized political party
or people who live under the Metric System and lastly anyone who
actually liked Sister Act 2 ( but please get
The author is not responsible for errors,
omissions, bad spelling, punctuation, dangling participles, misplaced
modifiers and lost or stolen articles. The author is not
Man, you are weird. But a good person, and mean well. RMF