Respiratory infections are all too common in pet turtles, but as you’ll soon discover, they are both treatable and preventable.
First, let’s define what a respiratory infection is.
When germs are breathed in by turtles, they meet the mucus membranes. These are a special tissue layer that lines the respiratory tract and helps with swallowing, immunity, and respiratory gas exchange.
The mucus membranes are a good barrier to disease, but each breath brings in new microbes – making them a constant battle ground for the immune system.
When germs do manage to breach them and attack the tissue underneath, this is known as a respiratory infection.
Turtle respiratory infections
In turtles, respiratory infections (referred to as “R.I.s”) can affect any part of the respiratory tract.
When the sinuses or the buccopharyngeal cavity (mouth and throat) are affected, this is an upper respiratory tract disease (URTD), whereas an infection of the lungs is a lower respiratory tract disease – though most people just refer to it as pneumonia.
In this article we’re going look at how to diagnose, treat and prevent both types of R.I.
How do turtles catch respiratory infections?
R.I.s often occur for different reasons in captive animals to wild ones. In wild turtles, bacterial, fungal, or parasitic R.I.s attack weak animals and play a role in population control.
Sometimes, they can also be the result of viral epidemics which may be passed on from frogs or other turtle species. The viruses that cause these epidemics are deadly and can infect reasonably healthy animals.
One example of this is when Ranaviruses (also known as Frog Viruses) attack species such as the Eastern Box turtle (Terrapene c. Carolina) and the Florida box turtle (Terrapene c. bauri), giving them fatal mouth rot and URTDs.
In captive turtles, most R.I.s are from gram-negative bacteria, such as Pseudomonas or Mycoplasma species, and almost always have a husbandry issue as their root cause.
Bacterial R.I.s occur when the immune system is overloaded or unable to function normally.
Incorrect temperatures, Vitamin A deficiency and poor hygiene are probably the three most common causes of R.I.s in pet turtles.
Very occasionally, outbreaks of viral R.I.s occur in captive animals, but this is less common and can be prevented through strict quarantine measures.
In some rare cases, captive turtles may also contract fungal R.I.s following a long bout of antibiotic treatment.
In both wild and captive chelonians, drowning can cause pneumonia. When a turtle drowns, its lungs fill with water that is much dirtier than the air they usually breath, the result being bacterial or fungal overload. Drowning can cause R.I.s in animals that were previously 100% healthy!
How do I know if my pet has a respiratory infection?
As I mentioned earlier, R.I.s can be divided into two categories: upper respiratory tract diseases (URTDs) and pneumonia.
Many URTDs will progress to pneumonia if left untreated, but they are easier to spot due to more visual symptoms.
URTD symptoms include:
- Loss of appetite
- Mucus coming from the mouth, nose, or eyes – sometimes making bubbles
- Epiphora (excessive watering of the eyes)
- Lethargy (sluggishness)
- Open mouth breathing and stretching the neck out for no apparent reason
- Limp behaviour when basking
Pneumonia can be harder to spot and only one or two of the following symptoms may be present:
- Loss of appetite
- Lop-side swimming or inability to dive (due to fluid on the lungs, causing buoyancy issues)
Open mouth breathing and stretching the neck out for no apparent reason
Tortoises and terrestrial turtles walking in circles (less common).
Pink areas of skin on the underside of legs and near bridge (part of the shell that connects the top to the bottom).
As a rule, pneumonia is more dangerous and can kill an animal within days. Occasionally though, it can also take on a chronic form, lingering for months. Fortunately, both types are easily identified with the help of an x-ray.
When to see a vet
When keeping a reptile, any sudden change in behaviour should make you suspicious! Has your pet started sulking in the corner? Or stopped diving into the water when you approach?
Signs like these can be the first warning of a problem. If you notice anything like this, or any one of the symptoms listed above, seek the help of a vet immediately.
Pneumonia is sometimes very discrete, showing few symptoms. In cases like these, I often find loss of appetite to be the first noticeable symptom. This is especially suspicious during summer or in an enclosure with a stable photoperiod.
Don’t forget that you know your pet best – if you think something is up, it probably is!
How to treat respiratory infections
Now that we’ve discussed how to spot R.I.s, let’s look at how to treat them both at the vets and at home.
As I mention in the Turtle Sneezing article, the way in which your vet diagnoses and treats an R.I. will depend on their personal experience.
Very broadly speaking, vets follow a similar plan for diagnosing and treating R.I.s:
Quick visual exam and auscultation (listening with a stethoscope).
Radiography to check for inflammation or fluid.
Swab or blood testing for microbe identification. A lung wash may also be performed to flush out fluids for testing.
Administration of antibiotic, antifungal, or antiviral drugs.
For URTDs, a turtle may be sent home with instructions. For pneumonia, a turtle may be kept at the practice for nebulization therapy or nutritional support. This can improve odds of survival.
Don’t be alarmed if your vet skips certain steps – they will be repeating methods that have worked with previous cases. These folks treat literally hundreds of R.I.s over the course of their career and know what they are doing!
Notwithstanding, please remember that although most cases of R.I. in pets are bacterial and very treatable, a small percentage are fungal or viral in origin and much harder to cure.
At home treatment:
Pet keepers are often tempted to try home treatment for reptile diseases, and who can blame them – it’s easy to be lured in by resources that tell you to skip a trip to the vets!
The problem with this is that there is simply no substitute for antibiotics, and these are often essential for clearing a bacterial R.I.
Even if you can get a hold of some antibiotics, the dosage can be tricky, and the first-hand experience vets have is priceless.
They will have access to a range of drugs, know which one will be most effective for your pet species, and know how to calculate the dosage correctly. In a nutshell, veterinary treatment is always recommended for an R.I.
So, what can we do at home? Well, there are a few things you can do to improve the odds:
Increase basking spot temperature by around 5F (2.7C) – even if your temperatures were correct to start with! Reptiles run on heat; an increase like this can help ramp up their immune system.
Create a cleaner environment. Change the substrate and water every few days.
Increase ventilation. This can be as simple as opening the window for an hour twice a day. Make sure not to sacrifice warmth though!
Minimise stress. A sick animal should NEVER be handled, even if they previously enjoyed interaction!
How to prevent respiratory infections
Prevention involves examining the husbandry issues that cause R.I.s and learning how to regulate them.
Each species of turtle has a specific range of temperatures that help it to function normally. Furthermore, it may need a temperature gradient – this means a cool end and a warm end.
Research this by reading care sheets for your specific species, then test your enclosure’s basking spot and cool side temperatures using an infrared thermometer gun, the air temperature using a digital thermometer, and the water using a submersible aquarium thermometer.
If your house cools down a lot at night, it will be important to also check night-time air temperature. Don’t forget: a sudden drop in temperature can cause an R.I. to set in, so be on your guard after a power cut!
Vitamin A deficiency is another leading cause of R.I., as well as aural abscesses and mouth rot.
For information on how to prevent vitamin A deficiency, check out the Turtle Swollen Eyes and Vitamin A deficiencies article. A second dietary issue is obesity.
Overweight turtles carry too much fat in their body cavity, which puts pressure on the respiratory system and makes it more prone to infection.
If your turtle looks like it can’t retreat into its shell without lots of blubber sticking out, you probably need to reduce its portions!
Excellent hygiene means an easy job for your pet’s immune system. Remove uneaten food and faeces immediately and change the substrate regularly.
For aquatic turtle species there are several options for improving water hygiene.
Additives that introduce healthy bacteria can work well, as can UV sterilising filters (make sure they have a guard to protect your pet’s eyes). Along with cleaning, ventilation is an essential component of hygiene.
Make sure there is adequate air flow around your pet’s enclosure to help decrease airborne germs.
Incorrect water depth can lead to drowning, followed by either death or pneumonia.
For baby turtles, shallow water allows them to forage without getting exhausted and decreases the risk of drowning.
For older, heavier pets, make sure that the water depth is at least twice the width of their carapace so that they can easily right themselves if they flip over.
For babies and adults make sure it easy for them to climb onto basking areas.
High humidity can lead to R.I.s in terrestrial chelonians, especially desert species such as the Desert Box Turtle (Terrapene ornata luteola).
For tropical species like the aquatic Matamata (Chelus fimbriata), breathing air that is too dry can also impact lung health and lead to R.I.s.
Though most cases are indeed bacterial, viral R.I.s can be introduced to your pets by new arrivals.
Whenever you get a new pet, quarantine it in a separate room/area for at least a month and never use the same feeding utensils for them.
It is also important to never buy wild caught animals as these are more likely to carry diseases.
Respiratory infections are common in pet turtles. They can manifest as a runny nose, or full-blown pneumonia. Fortunately for us, most of them are bacterial and highly treatable if caught in the early stages.
For those cases that are of fungal or viral origin, treatment may be much more difficult, but prevention can be straight forward.
Unsurprisingly, prevention of all types of R.I. comes down to creating the conditions your pet needs to thrive. If you thoroughly research your pet’s husbandry requirements, you can make a respiratory infection extremely unlikely.
As always, comment or get touch for more help and advice!
Wednesday 28th of July 2021
My red eared slider is approx 20-25yrs old, always happy and full of personality. Started acting sluggish and sinking to the bottom and seems to be sleeping. Went to the vet and got antibiotics for a poss URI, we were instructed to take him out of the water and allow him to be in it 1 hour a day which he promptly sinks and sleeps. The rest of the day he's in a dry tub with a towel, the vet said he wouldn't need a heat source. Something doesn't seem right and it's been 3 weeks and he's not better. Is it the end or should I go with my instincts and get his out of water habitat heated properly? Thank you for any insight and I did call the vet again, I'm awaiting for a reply but I'm a nervous mom looking for some insight. - Jenn
Monday 20th of September 2021
I hope your turtle has since healed. If he has not, I would definitely advise you to heat his environment! I just got back from the vet today (a reptile zoo vet, mind you) who treated my red eared slider for a respiratory infection. After just 24 hours I am seeing a major improvement based on the recommendation that I administer injectable antibiotics once every 4 days and INCREASE the typical basking area temp and water temp. My turtle is currently in my empty bathtub recovering. She has her small bowl of water with a piece of kale in it and I submerge her in her tank for 30-45 minutes a day under my supervision. Hope this helps!