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How to treat turtle shell damage

The shell provides critical protection to chelonia, but can occasionally be damaged in situations such as falls, bites, or bacterial/fungal growth. This article is designed to guide you through treating small injuries with an iodine-based or salt-based solution, including shell scrapes, cuts, cracks, bites and shell rot. For large injuries, or severe infections, please consult an animal rehabilitation specialist or qualified professional.

Iodine is suitable for external injuries only, and not be added to swimming or drinking water, or applied to/near the mouth.

Treating the cause

Before treating the injury itself, it is crucial that the cause is eliminated. If your turtle has fallen from the tank, or injured itself when diving from the basking area, then you will need to ensure this is no longer able to happen. Ensure the enclosure is secure, and remove any underwater decoration within diving range of the basking area.

If your turtle has been bitten by another turtle, then they should be seperated immediately. Unfortunately, turtles are usually solitary creatures, and don't always tolerate other turtles in close proximity. Male turtles can also inflict nasty bites when seeking the attention of a female tankmate, or trying to establish dominance with another male.

Water should be kept extremely clean to prevent further infection. Some shell damage can occur from bacterial or fungal growth on the shell ('shell rot'), and this is associated with poor water conditions. More direct forms of injury such as bites and cuts can develop secondary infection and septacaemia from dirty water during treatment. Turtles prevent shell infections by basking, and allowing the shell to dry out; almost all freshwater turtles, including softshells, snappers, musks, muds and sliders/cooters should have access to a basking area with a spotlight for heat, and can develop shell rot without one.

Treating the injuries

Firstly, remove the turtle and gently dry it using a towel or cloth. If the wounds appear infected, gently clean them using a soft toothbrush and fresh water, being careful not to further damage the shell or any exposed tissue, before patting dry. Ideally, take photographs of the shell each time you carry out this treatment; such images can be compared later to monitor how the shell is healing.

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Once the turtle is dry, apply a topical iodine solution (such as Tamodine wound cleanser or Betadine solution) to the affected area using a Q-tip/Cottonbud. If such iodine solutions are not available to you, you can use a strong salt solution as an alternative. After application, the shell should be allowed to air dry. At this stage, you may also want to combine this treatment with dry docking for an hour after application, to aid healing and further prevent infection.

After the solution has dried/after dry docking treatment, use a damp cloth to gently wipe off the iodine or salt, before returning the turtle to its enclosure. Small amounts of residue should not pose problems if you are unable to wipe it all off, however aim to remove as much as possible so that less becomes dissolved in the turtles swimming/drinking water.

This treatment should be repeated daily until the injuries appear to have healed over, or reduced in size. If infection continues, or the damage appears to spread, seek the advice of an animal rehabilitation specialist.

If you have any further questions regarding shell damage or turtle health, please email me:
Paul Edmondson

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