Figuring out if you have a sick turtle can present special challenges.
Turtles may hide the signs they are unwell as part of their natural instinct to survive.
So how can you tell if you have a sick turtle?
Are there certain sick turtle symptoms or sick tortoise symptoms you can watch for?
In this article we cover the most common sick turtle and sick tortoise symptoms so you can learn what to watch for in your own pet.
Choose an exotic veterinarian
If this is the first time you have kept a pet turtle, you may not know your pet will need to see a special kind of veterinarian for wellness checkups and treatment.
This special veterinarian is called an “exotic” veterinary specialist.
A veterinary generalist learns how to care for warm-blooded popular pets like dogs and cats.
However, it requires extra training to learn about the care needs of cold-blooded and less-common pets like reptiles.
It is always wise to seek out a local qualified exotic veterinarian to do your new turtle’s initial wellness checkup.
Then you will know exactly who to call if your turtle ever needs medical attention!
Illness and injury in turtles and tortoises
There are two main types of pet turtles: water (aquatic) turtles and land turtles (tortoises and box turtles).
Despite the obvious differences in habitat needs and visual appearance, turtles and tortoises don’t tend to have “species-specific” illnesses like many breeds of cats and dogs do.
Rather, most common sick turtle health issues can typically be seen across species.
Sick turtle and sick tortoise symptoms
Once you have spent some time observing your pet turtle, you will start to get a sense for how a healthy turtle looks and acts.
Clear eyes and nose, easy breathing, a healthy appetite, a regular daily routine of activity and rest, formed waste at regular intervals – these are all general signs of good health.
This regular observation will help you tune in to notice when your turtle’s appearance or behavior suddenly seems “off.”
Here are some sick turtle and tortoise signs and symptoms to watch for:
- Puffy or swollen eyes.
- Puffy or swollen ears (turtles don’t have visible ears but they are located on each side of their head).
- Respiratory discharge.
- “Bubbling” at the nose and mouth.
- Wheezing, gasping or open-mouth breathing.
- Sunken eyes, thick saliva, dry skin that flakes away, sticky or tacky mucous membranes.
- Loss of appetite.
- Weight loss or gain.
- “Pyramiding” – an uneven shell growth that makes the shell look thick, lumpy or bumpy.
- Lethargy at times when activity is normally observed.
- Stiff, swollen limbs and trouble walking.
- Issues with floating/buoyancy (for aquatic turtles only).
- Discoloration, bleeding, sloughing (more than a normal shell shed), shell softness or odor.
- Bloody, watery or discolored waste; constipation or diarrhea or both.
- Prolapse of the reproductive organs (where the organ falls outside the tortoise’s tail).
Each of these sick turtle or tortoise symptoms can indicate one or more health issues.
Common causes range from parasites to infection, trauma to nutritional deficiencies and, occasionally, congenital (inherited from birth) health issues or diseases contracted before you received your pet turtle.
Turtle and tortoise health issues
So many factors can influence whether your pet turtle falls ill or develops an infection or disease!
In rare cases, your pet may have inherited an illness from birth that may or may not be treatable, and this is something only your exotic vet will be able to diagnose.
However, often it is a simple issue like nutrition, hydration, access to vitamins and minerals, access to natural light, husbandry (cleaning and maintaining the habitat), age or stage of life (such as pregnancy) that are at the root of most turtle and tortoise illnesses.
These are some of the most commonly reported pet turtle and tortoise health issues:
- Nutritional deficiency.
- Ultraviolet light deficiency.
- Shell rot.
- Respiratory infections.
- Claw or beak overgrowths.
- Metabolic bone disease/pyramiding.
- Egg binding (female pregnant turtles).
- Cracked or damaged shell.
- External or internal parasites (mites, ticks, blowfly/botfly, chiggers, worms, protozoans).
- Mouth rot.
- Impaction in the gut (from ingesting a foreign body or too much sand or dirt with food).
Matching sick turtle symptoms to sickness
It is important to be able to spot common sick turtle symptoms and equally important to not automatically assume that the symptom is caused by a specific illness or issue.
Some common sick turtle symptoms can have more than one potential cause, and only your exotic vet will be able to make the right diagnosis and prescribe the right type of treatment.
Let’s take a look at half a dozen of the most common sick turtle symptoms and some (but not all) likely causes.
1. Sunken or swollen eyes
Possible causes include dehydration, too much or too little humidity, a respiratory infection, or irritation from something in the turtle’s habitat (such as toxic woods like pine or cedar).
2. Swollen areas on the ears/neck or other places
Abscesses are the most likely cause, but it could also be blowfly/botfly or other larval or parasitic infections.
3. Wheezing, sneezing, bubbling around nose/mouth, respiratory or eye discharge
The most common cause for these and similar symptoms is a respiratory infection.
Turtles and tortoises can get respiratory infections for reasons ranging from poor husbandry (too much/too little humidity, dirty water) to viruses and bacteria to irritation coming from materials in their habitat (toxic wood, poisonous plants).
4. Bowel issues (diarrhea/constipation)
The wrong diet, ingestion of foreign matter, viral/bacterial/fungal infection, and egg binding (if a female turtle is pregnant and the egg breaks inside her or won’t descend) can all cause bowel issues.
5. Trouble walking, swollen or stiff limbs
It could be gout (usually caused by inadequate nutrition or the wrong diet) or egg binding in pregnant female turtles.
6. Shell thickening/uneven growth, odd-shaped scutes (shell plates)
Pyramiding is a sign of metabolic bone disease.
This is one of the most serious sick turtle issues. It is caused by a combination of factors ranging from poor diet to inadequate ultraviolet light.
Other symptoms can include soft shell, malformed shell, dragging shell when walking and inward-curved shell growth.
Sick baby turtle
It can be hard enough to figure out when an adult pet turtle or tortoise is getting sick. But it is even harder in baby turtles!
This is because baby turtles and tortoises will spend much of the first year or so of their life hiding.
The instinct to hide is very strong because most wild baby turtles won’t make it through their first year of life – they are too vulnerable and delicious and practically everything in their habitat wants to eat them!
In captivity, of course, your turtle is safe from predators.
But since your baby turtle doesn’t know that, you will need to pay extra-close attention to any signs that something may be wrong.
Protecting against a sick baby turtle
If you have a baby tortoise, you will need to make sure your little one is given a warm soak bath at least a couple times per week to avoid dehydration.
You will also need to carefully monitor the warm and cool areas of the habitat, levels of ultraviolet light (all pet turtles need daily extended access to a UV light source to help their bodies make calcium for strong shell and bone development) and humidity levels (tropical turtle species in particular require humidity for the same).
Careful attention to these basic husbandry tasks can help guard against you ever waking up one morning and discovering you have a sick baby turtle on your hands!
Sick turtle – what to do
If you suspect you have a sick turtle, don’t wait to seek care from your exotic vet or try to treat the issue on your own at home.
Remember, a sick turtle that is showing symptoms is probably already a lot sicker than you realize, since most wild animals become very good very quickly at hiding any signs they are unwell!
To diagnose a sick turtle, your exotic vet may do a number of things starting with a visual exam of the patient.
From there, palpation of your turtle’s extremities/neck/head, a fecal exam, a variety of blood tests or a biopsy if there is skin or shell irritation or abrasion can give your vet more information to come to an accurate diagnosis.
Treating a sick tortoise or turtle
Exotic veterinarians have several different options for treating a sick turtle.
For nutritional deficiencies, vitamin supplements may be prescribed, often in the form of injections.
Abscesses may be drained and bandaged.
Infections are often treated with a course of antibiotics, anti-parasitics or anti-fungal medications by injection, by mouth or topical.
For egg-bound pregnant female turtles, an injection may help your turtle pass the eggs. If this doesn’t work, surgery is another option.
Similarly, if your veterinarian suspects your sick turtle has ingested foreign material, or if your turtle has suffered physical trauma, surgery may be necessary.
Helping a sick turtle
Good care goes a long to way protecting your turtle from illness.
But even the best-loved turtle or tortoise might occasionally get unwell through plain old bad luck.
Take a bit of time to learn the sick turtle symptoms, so that you can seek help for your pet promptly should he ever need it.
Remember, your exotic vet is the best resource you have to help your sick turtle get well fast!
Has your turtle or tortoise been under the weather?
Or more nerve-wracking still have you had a sick baby turtle?
What was the diagnosis, and how was their recovery?
Share your stories in the comments box below!
And if you’re keen to find out more about turtles, we’ve got a great guide to the snapping turtle here!
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Topper, M., DVM, PhD, DACVP, “Veterinary Specialists,” The American Veterinary Medical Association, 2018.
Horton, S., DVM, “General Care of Aquatic Turtles,” Chicago Exotics Animal Hospital, 2018.
Baine III, J., DVM, DABVP, et al, “Common Diseases of Pet Turtles,” Bishop Ranch Veterinary Center, 2018.
“Aural Abscesses in Aquatic Turtles,” The Center for Avian and Exotic Medicine, 2018.
Klingbenberg, R., DVM, “Routine Health Care of Reptiles,” Merck Veterinary Manual, 2018.