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Turtle Respiratory Infections
What to do if your turtle catches a cold
Turtles have lungs and breathe air; and just like any other animals with lungs, they can get colds and respiratory infections ("RIs"). These can be caused by bacteria, viruses, or fungi, so the proper treatment depends on the type of germ that's causing the infection. Only a veterinarian skilled in the care of reptiles (often called a "herp vet") can make that diagnosis and prescribe the proper treatment.
If your turtle gets a respiratory infection and it's not properly treated with medications prescribed by a vet, it will probably die. If you notice any of the symptoms in the next section, you should call a vet right away or visit an animal hospital that allows walk-ins. You should look for a veterinarian or animal hospital that treats reptiles, if at all possible. They often advertise as "exotic animal" veterinarians. If you can't find one, then call any veterinarian or animal hospital close to you. Chances are that they'll either be able to help your turtle or will know someone who can.
You'll need to pack your turtle in something to keep it warm during the trip. Wrapping your turtle in a terry cloth towel and putting it in a Styrofoam box with one or two heat packs is a good way to get it to a vet's office or animal hospital.
Please note that I am not a veterinarian. I'm just a long-time hobbyist turtle keeper, and this page is just informational based on my own experiences.
Symptoms of Respiratory Infections in Aquatic Turtles
If you notice any one of the following symptoms, it could be a sign that your turtle is sick and needs to see a vet. If you notice two or more, then your turtle is almost certainly sick.
- The turtle is lethargic (it seems tired and doesn't move very much).
- It seems that the turtle is having difficulty surfacing to breathe, or it stays on the surface and seems afraid to swim.
- The turtle has a runny nose or mucous (snot or boogers) around its nostrils, or has puffy eyes.
- Wheezing, gasping, coughing, snoring, or persistent sneezing.
- Loss of appetite, or sometimes an increase in appetite (especially in the early stages of an RI).
- The turtle is basking in a "lazy" position, with its head and feet drooping on the basking platform.
- A turtle who usually leaps off the basking platform into the water when you walk into the room suddenly starts ignoring your presence. This can also be a sign that the turtle is simply getting to trust you. But if it occurs suddenly or in combination with other symptoms, it could be a sign that the turtle is ill.
- An adult or older juvenile turtle starts sleeping on the basking area at night. (Hatchlings often sleep on the basking area, so it's not necessarily a danger sign for them.)
- The turtle is swimming lopsided or sideways.
That last symptom -- swimming lopsided (also called listing) -- is a very dangerous sign, especially if any of the other symptoms are present. It usually means that the turtle has pneumonia and one of its lungs is starting to fill with fluid. That's what's throwing off its balance. The side that's lower is the side that's filling with fluid, and it throws off the turtle's buoyancy. If your turtle's RI has progressed to pneumonia, the turtle will almost certainly die without treatment by a vet.
First Aid for Turtles with Respiratory Infections
Respiratory infections are usually fatal to turtles, so the first thing you should do is call a veterinarian. If you notice the symptoms when the vet's office is closed or if there is some other reason why you can't get your turtle to a vet right away, start administering first aid right away:
- If you have more than one turtle, separate the sick one from the rest and place it in a "hospital tank." RIs are very contagious. Watch the other turtle(s) for signs of infection and treat them as described here, just to be safe.
- Make sure all your water parameters are are within limits. If needed, do a water change, but make sure that the water you add to the tank is warm (about 83 - 85 degrees F. / 28.3 - 29.4 degrees C. for most common aquatic turtle species).
- Raising your turtle's temperature will help stimulate its immune response. You're basically giving it a fever because reptiles can't do that for themselves. Raise the water temperature to the extreme high end of the range for your species of turtle. If you're not sure what that is, you can look it up on Austin's Turtle Care Sheets. If you're still not sure, 83 - 85 degrees F. (28.3 - 29.4 degrees C.) is a safe range for most common aquatic turtles when they're ill.
- Raise the temperature at the hot spot of the basking area to the high end for your turtle species. If you're not sure, 93 - 95 degrees F. (33.9 - 35 degrees C.) is an acceptable range for most common aquatic turtles. Make sure the turtle has enough room to move to a cooler area on the basking platform in case that's too hot.
- Use an infrared heat lamp over the basking area, in addition to the usual basking and UVB lamps. The infrared lamp will help raise the turtle's internal temperature. Be careful not to let the temperature at the hot spot exceed the high end for your turtle species. Use a reptile thermometer and make sure there is room for the turtle to move to a cooler area on the basking platform.
- Leave the infrared light over the basking area turned on at night. Sick turtles often stay on the basking area at night because they have a hard time coming up to breathe or maintaining buoyancy in the water.
- If your turtle has a habit of "basking" at the water's surface (for example, young turtles often rest on top of floating plants), place an infrared lamp over that area. Be careful of the temperature. Check it with a thermometer.
- You may want to add some API Turtle Fix to the water at the dosage on the label. This will not cure your turtle's infection. It's only tea tree oil, not a real antibiotic. But it may help your turtle breathe a little more easily. It's kind of like smearing mentholated petroleum jelly on a child's chest when they have a cold.
- Consider "dry-docking" your turtle, especially if it's not able to swim because it's so sick. This means putting your turtle in a dry enclosure with a heat lamp and UVB lamp, allowing it into the water only twice a day for about half an hour each time so it can eat and drink.
If you catch your turtle's infection in the early stages, you may start seeing improvement in your turtle's condition just from making the above changes. But it takes a lot more time to cure an RI than it does for your turtle to look like it's recovered. You should still call a vet. If money is a problem, most vets accept credit cards, and some offer special financing through their own offices or specialized third-party lenders. So at least call a vet. Chances are that they can make it possible for you to afford their services.
If you absolutely can't afford to call a vet, then leave the above configuration in place for at least two weeks after your turtle seems to be recovered; then slowly start reducing the temperatures to their normal levels. Reduce the temperatures at at a rate of about 1 degree F. (about 0.5 degree C.) every week until they are at the middle of the range for your turtle species.
The above steps are just first aid. If you possibly can, take your sick turtle to a vet. If you don't, it probably will die if it has an RI. If you absolutely can't take your turtle to a vet, then trying the above first aid will give your turtle a fighting chance, especially if you catch the infection very early. But it will be an uphill battle without medicines that only a veterinarian can prescribe.
What Will a Veterinarian Do for my Sick Turtle?
The first thing the vet will do will be to try to determine what's making your turtle sick. He or she will probably weigh the turtle, listen to its lungs with a stethoscope, place it in water to watch it swim, and swab around its nostrils to try to get a mucous sample to determine what kind of germ is causing the infection. The vet may also X-ray your turtle to see if it has pneumonia or if some other problem might be causing its illness (some digestive problems can cause listing, for example).
Once the cause is determined, the treatment for a respiratory infection will depend on the reason the turtle is sick, the turtle's size and condition, and the veterinarian's experience and preferences.
The vet will probably prescribe some kind of medication, or may inject your turtle with an antibiotic right there in the office. You may also be given medicine to administer to your turtle, which may be drops to be given by mouth, nebulized medications that your turtle will have to breathe in, or injections that you'll be taught to administer. The vet may also prescribe a vaporizer (with or without medications), or he or she may admit your turtle to be treated at the vet's office for a few days.
How to Help Avoid Turtle Respiratory Infections
There's no secret to avoiding respiratory infections in turtles, but practicing good husbandry will reduce the risk. The most important things to remember are:
- Avoid air or water temperatures that are cooler than those recommended for your species of turtle. Cold temperatures don't cause RIs, but they make it more difficult for your turtle to fight off germs that can cause RIs.
- Wash your hands both before and after handling your turtles or anything in their enclosure. You may have germs on your hands that can make your turtle sick, and your turtles may have germs that can make you sick. Read this page for more information about that.
- Maintain good lighting, heat, and water quality in your turtle's habitat.
- Avoid drafts in your turtle's habitat. Even warm drafts can make your turtle sick because they may carry the germs that can cause RIs.
- If the room where your turtles live is carpeted, use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter to clean the carpet to keep dust particles out of the air. Also turn off any aeration in the tank during and for an hour or so after vacuuming. Also avoid using carpet cleaning powders in the room where your turtles or other aquatic pets. Some of them can be toxic to aquatic animals.
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