turtle health, wheezing, coughing, mucus, snot, bubbles, lopsided, respiratory, fungal, parasite, infection

How to spot common turtle health problems

Aquatic turtles are generally very hardy creatures, but they can be affected by a range of health problems. If your turtle is showing an unusual behaviour, it could be an indication of something serious, and you should seek the advice of a qualified professional.
The following symptoms can provide a useful checklist when quarantining a new turtle, or if you are noticing an unusual behaviour that you think may be linked to illness.

Turtle is blowing bubbles, wheezing, swimming lopsided, gaping or has excessive mucus around nose or mouth

This indicates a Respiratory Infection (RI), which can often arise when the turtle does not have access to a dry basking area, or humidity is allowed to build up (common in aquarium setups with a lid). Affected turtles will attempt to bask more (and open their mouths when basking) to try to dry their airways out, and will have mucus build-up in nose/mouth leading to wheezing and bubble blowing. Keeping the turtle's environment too cold, or allowing large fluctuations in temperature (such as keeping the enclosure in a draughty area) can contribute to the development of respiratory infection.

Treating respiratory infections
Respiratory infections can be eased by keeping the turtle warm and dry. Increase the water and basking temperatures 2 or 3 degrees, and ensure the turtle has access to a dry basking spot, and that the enclosure has no lid. Consider "dry docking" larger, more hardy species for up to an hour a day.

Small-scale respiratory infections can clear up on their own if the turtle is kept warm and is able to dry off frequently, but if the symptoms persist for more than 7 days, antibiotics may need to be administered and you should consult a qualified professional

Turtle is unable to open its eyes, or the turtle's eyes are swollen/crusty

Swollen and crusty eyes are a symptom of Vitamin A deficiency. If the eyes look cloudy or red/inflamed, it could be the sign of a bacterial conjunctivitis, and the turtle may need antibiotics from a qualified professional.

Treating Vitamin A deficiency
You can attempt to gently clean the eyes with a Q-tip (cotton bud) dipped in warm water, but this will only help the turtle open it's eyes temporarily, rather than fix the problem.

The addition of a reptile vitamin supplement to the diet is essential to overcome this illness. Cod liver oil can be mixed in with the turtle's food, as it is naturally high in Vitamin A. Once symptoms improve, evaluate your turtle's diet, as a deficiency in Vitamin A will usually mean a deficiency in something else.

Turtle's shell appears soft, turtle unable to move legs, turtle is lethargic

If your turtle appears to have a soft, flexible shell, particularly above the tail, and is not a newly hatched animal, or one of the various softshell turtle species, your turtle may have Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD), which is caused by lack of calcium. In progressed cases, the turtle may be unable to move it's legs and unable to move. Touching the leg of a healthy turtle should result in it quickly being pulled inside the shell.

Treating Metabolic Bone Disease (lack of calcium)
MBD can be caused in two ways. Firstly, you may not be offering the turtle enough calcium in the diet. Float cuttlefish bone (with the hard backing removed) in the water for the turtle to nibble on, and consider dusting other food with a calcium supplement.

The second way that MBD can occur is lack of Vitamin D3. Turtles use Vitamin D3 to absorb calcium, and if the turtle is not getting Vitamin D3, adding more calcium to the diet won't help. Vitamin D3 can be made by the turtles themselves using Ultraviolet light, so the addition of a reptile lamp with 10% UVB output can help, or exposure to unfiltered natural sunlight. Alternatively, Vitamin D3 can also be added to the diet of the turtle in supplement form.

One of the early signs of MBD is the shell in the tail area being flexible. This is normal in young turtles which are only a few months old, but should harden up quickly. If the sides or front of the shell are also flexible, or the turtle appears to have trouble moving its legs, it is important to consult a professional, as they may be able to administer an injection of calcium.

Turtle has physical trauma, cuts, bites, cracked shell

Small scrapes and bites can be cleaned with Betadine or Tamodine ointment, and should heal without infection as long as the water is kept clean and warm.

For shell cracks or larger injuries, consult a professional.

Turtle's skin or plastron (bottom of shell) appears pink or red

This can indicate a blood infection (septicaemia).

Treating Septicaemia
Increase the water temperature to aid the turtle's immune system, and consult a qualified professional for antibiotic treatment.

Turtle's shell is discoloured, raised, or looks mouldy

Discolouration of the shell can be a sign of shell rot. This is caused by fungal or bacterial infection. Shell rot can occur after periods in dirty water, or when a turtle does not have access to basking spot where it can completely dry off. Do not mistake algae growth on the shell, or shedding for shell rot. Shell rot is associated with an "eaten away" shell look, a cheesy appearance, and a unpleasant smell.

Treating shell rot
Gently clean the shell with a soft toothbrush, and ensure the water is kept extremely clean. Aquarium salt can be added to the water to combat fungus (follow packaging instructions for treating fish fungus), and an iodine or salt-based solution added to the shell. Ensure the turtle has access to a dry basking area, where it can get completely out of the water. Consider "dry docking" larger, more hardy species for up to an hour a day.

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

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