Respiratory Disease in Chelonians

By Julie Young, GCTTS Member


Spring and Summer have come to South Texas - trees are budding, flowers are blooming, and, yes, your lawn is needing mowing. While plants are coming back to life, our outdoor turtles are also shaking off the sleepiness of brumation (hibernation) and poking their heads out into the sunlight and warmth. (My ornates appeared briefly a couple of weeks ago, coming out during the warm days in February, then burrowing back down at night). If all went well during our oddly fiery/frigid winter, your turtles will emerge from hibernation healthy and robust (and hungry!).

But there's always a danger that some turtles will fall ill during the cold and wet winter months. The most common ailment is respiratory infection. Respiratory infections are gravely serious, and, if untreated, often fatal.

Predisposing Factors

There are predisposing factors that make turtles more susceptible to respiratory problems. The first is anatomical structure - the way the animal is built. Because turtles and tortoises are not equipped with diaphragms, they are unable to cough or discharge fluids or mucus that accumulate in the lungs. They also have an ``S'' shaped trachea, the tube that carries air from the nose down to the lungs. This convoluted shape makes it somewhat difficult for the animal to breath. The "S'' shape is even more pronounced when the head is withdrawn into the shell. Skittishness around people is one reason turtles bring their heads in, so it's best that we give our pets, especially those that are sick, plenty of privacy and 'quiet time.'

This leads to another predisposing factor to illness - stress. Stress comes in many forms, and they all help to wear an animal down, weakening its immune system. Following are several types of stress: 1.) Dehydration. If you pinch skin on a healthy turtle, the skin will quickly flatten out. Dehydrated skin will stay pinched up for a while. 2.) Poor nutrition, especially over a long period of time. 3.) Parasites. It's recommended to have a vet check for parasites at least once each year. And keep pens clean of fecal matter. 4.) Husbandry deficiencies such as improper heat, diet, and hygiene. 5.) High population density, which increases the likelihood that infections will be passed from one animal to another. 6.) Mixing animals from different geographical areas, which causes animals to be exposed to foreign germs against which they may have no immunity.

In case you aren't taking this last point seriously, I'll tell you about a fellow with a collection of exotic tortoises valued at close to $7000 who nearly lost all of them to a local 'bug.' First of all, the tortoises were stressed from a recent move from the arid environment of Austin to Houston's humid climate. Then a friend found a box turtle in the Texas woods and put it in the pen with the African tortoises. The African tortoises had no immunity to a germ carried by the box turtle. The whole group fell seriously ill. Luckily, none died, but Mr. Owner had a hefty vet bill, to say the least.

Incidentally, this story also illustrates another point only United States raised turtles and tortoises. In the story above, all of the foreign tortoises species were actually hatched and raised in the US. Note, too, that it was a wild caught animal that carried the dangerous bug that nearly wiped out the entire lot. Obtain animals from reputable sources, and do not collect from the wild.

Respiratory Infections

There are two kinds of respiratory infections, defined by in what part of the animal's body they settle. Upper respiratory tract disease (URTD) affect the sinuses and nasal area. Lower respiratory tract disease (LRTD) settles into the bifurcation of the trachea and the lungs.

Symptoms of URTD are nasal discharge, nasal wheeze (dry whistling sound when breathing), conjunctivitis (inflamed or puffy eyes), chonal inflammation (inflammation in back of upper mouth).

LRTD can follow untreated URTD. Symptoms of LRTD are open mouth breathing as the animal struggles to pull in air, bellows respiration (working the legs in an effort to pull in air by expanding and contracting the body), glottis discharge (foamy discharge from mouth), gurgling respiration. In water turtles, you may also see listing in the water, caused by pneumonia in one lung, which fills with gunk and becomes heavy. Water turtles may also stay near the surface of the water, where the air is, because they can t easily bring air in and out; nor can they hold their breath.

Diagnosing respiratory problems is done with the use of several methods. Physical exam (look and listen), cytology (looking at certain cells through a microscope), culture & sensitivity (this technique is more effective with mammals than reptiles), radiography (an expensive way to look through that bony shell at what is going on with the lungs).

When diagnosing, the vet determines between several possible etiologic causes, bacterial, viral (need an electron microscope to see viruses), fungal (easy to detect), parasitic (also easy to see), and mycoplasmal agent (a very primitive organism, found especially in Mediterranean tortoises).

Bacterial Agents

Because one type appears to live in turtles all the time, it was given the name pasteurella testudinis. Stressors like Vitamin A deficiency probably cause this to become active. Pseudomonas grows in water bowls. It is very common and very resistant to antibiotics. Aeromonas is similar to the aforementioned. Salmonella, also passed along in water bowls, is very commonly found in most turtles. It is an opportunistic bacteria, and can cause septicemia (blood poisoning). It can also be passed to humans.

IMPORTANT - PLEASE NOTE that the last three bacteria strains are readily passed from turtle to turtle via water bowls. Remember that a chelonian's oral cavity opens to its nasal opening - a drink of dirty water can easily go right to the nose and lungs. Turtles tend to share their water bowls, and they also tend to defecate in them. KEEP THOSE WATER BOWLS CLEAN AND DISINFECTED.

Viral agents

Herpes virus (in pond and green sea turtles, where it almost caused extinction). Paro virus. Synctial virus (also found in cattle). Paramyxo virus (heart, kidney, liver, lungs. A problem when mixing animals from different areas.).

Fungal Agents

Fungal agents commonly appear after an animal has undergone antibiotic therapy. You see, even treating an animal to make it well introduces a further stress. Aspergillus (common in birds and in our environment - it's the black stuff that grows on bread). Rhizopus (in the soil - where turtles live and come in contact with it). Geotrichum (also found in soil. Intact skin and a healthy immune system will help to shrug this off).

Parasitic Agents

Hhabdias (lung worms). Ochetosoma (flukes - common in snails and water turtles). Because there are different types of parasites, your vet may use different types of deworming medication. (These may temporarily upset the digestive tract.) Do NOT try dog or cat deworming medication.

Mycoplasmal Agents

A crude, primitive type of bacteria that has no cell wall. Therefore, medications that have been developed to kill bacteria by attacking and destroying the cell wall won't work on this type. Causes most URTD in chelonians. Turtles can have this in a chronic carrier state - they may be in an incurable state of remission and show no signs, but may still pass the disease on to other animals. For this reason, always quarantine new or treated animals for at least 90 days. Some experts quarantine for a year.


Improve husbandry (keep reptiles clean and warm with proper humitidy, feed the appropriate diet and correct deficiencies). Antimicrobial drugs (oral, nasal flushes, or injectable. Fungal remedies given orally or by injection can be toxic to turtles, because a dose that is large enough to kill fungus will also harm or kill the turtle.). Antiparasitic drugs (to reduce stress on the patient by reducing a worm load).

Turtles with respiratory illness require supportive home care in combination with veterinary treatment. First of all, isolate the sick animal. Then increase the temperature to stimulate the immune system. The temperture should be 85-88 degrees (no higher) with very high humidity. Maintain this temperature day and night. Offer water. Water is important because the turtles loose moisture through its breathing. Also, if it is off feed, it is not getting the moisture from the vegetable matter it normally eats. If the turtle won't eat, soak it in water for 30 minutes two or three times a week. This helps clear out the gastro intestinal tract, and also helps the animal to pass urine. And remember, keep the bowl clean to avoid, recontamination. Keep humidity high. This helps break up congestion and discharge.

A very common problem after respiratory infections appears as a swelling on the "cheek". It's not really the cheek that's swelling, it's the ear, which is close to the nasal and oral cavities. The infection is in the ear canal and now an abscess is forming. While mammals have an enzyme that will dissolve abscesses, turtles do not (nor do birds). This rarely goes away by itself, and untreated can back up past the ear canal making removal difficult and even fatal. If the abscess ruptures on it's own, flies can lay eggs in the open wound resulting in maggot infestation. A simple surgical procedure will fix your turtle right up.


Here are a few tips on controlling and preventing illnesses of any kind. Quarantine all new arrivals. Practice optimal husbandry. Learn about your pet's native habitat, and recreate it as exactingly as possible. Isolate all sick animals. Practice strict hygiene, especially during an outbreak of disease. If you have a turtle that becomes ill, call the vet early, before the problem becomes severe, untreatable, or overwhelmingly expensive.

Please Contact the Gulf Coast Turtle and Tortoise Society if you have further questions.

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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