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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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:
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