Internal Parasites

By Julie Young, GCTTS Member

Internal parasites are tiny, microscopic organisms that live inside the body of other animals. Everything that's needed to sustain their life, they take from the body of the animal they invade. Invariably, this `relationship' works to the benefit of the parasite, but wrecks havoc on the system of the host animal.

Warm blooded animals aren't the only critters subject to parasites. Turtles and other reptiles can also be afflicted with these nasty free-loaders. And when parasites take up residence inside a turtle, the animal's health will suffer, even to the point of death.

Among the most common parasites found in turtles are flukes (tapeworms), nematodes (roundworms), and protozoa. These parasites live in the digestive tract of the host and cause damage by eating the turtle's food, robbing it of nutrition. Some types of worms also actually suck the turtle's blood, weakening it on another front. Any parasitic load will wear a turtle down, and a turtle that is least bit weakened will be more susceptible to other problems, including fungus, shell rot, and respiratory infection.

How do turtles become infected with parasites? In one way or the other they ingest the eggs of the parasite, and the worms hatch inside and remain there, slowly sapping the strength of the host.

There are many sources of infestation. Parasite eggs can be taken in through the mouth as the turtle eats infected food. Communal water bowls are a common place for spread as well. Feces are particularly dangerous, because worm eggs are often passed in the feces, and, as most of us know, our pets sometimes have appetites for some pretty strange and disgusting `entrees'. One infected turtle can spread parasites to every other turtle in the pen.

If all your turtles come from one place, they may be carrying only one type of worm. But if you collect turtles from various sources, you could be introducing a score of parasites into your collection. Also, be aware that the age-old test of hefting a turtle to judge it's health by it's weight could be misleading - I've heard of turtles feeling heavy because they were full of worms!

If you're proud of your housekeeping, and you think your turtles don't have parasites, it would be wise to have them checked anyway. And checking must be done every year or two. I thought I'd done pretty well with my turtles. After all, they're active, eat well, and some of them have lived with me for more than 20 years. My vet insisted on worming two of my turtles who had spent the winter indoors. I was aghast when I saw masses of squirming varmits, no thicker than a thread and no longer than a quarter inch, passed along with the feces. I couldn't believe that I had allowed my pets to live so long under such a parasitic load.

The good news is that the pair of turtles (who never appeared bad in the first place) are now in super shape. They are much more active than before, and both have ravenous appetites...I mean these guys will polish off half a large tomato in one sitting, and do the same the next day! As soon as the rest of my guys are out of hibernation (and before putting these two into the communal outdoor pen), I'm definitely having the whole gang checked for parasites.

I've learned my lesson. I now have a "turtle fund" much like a "Christmas Club" so I can have my pets attended to when needed - and that includes a parasite check every spring. And I will never put a new turtle into the community pen until it's been given a parasite check and a clean bill of health by my vet.

Copyright (c) 2004 Gulf Coast Turtle and Tortoise Society
Permission is granted to copy for non-profit use with proper credit given. For any other use you must obtain permission.

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Houston, TX 77073
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