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Turtle Septicemia

Turtle Septicemia, also referred to as sepsis, is a generalised blood infection. Today, we’re going to look at this poorly understood illness. This serious condition can be easy to spot but progresses very quickly.

Fortunately, there are ways of diagnosing and treating it if caught early enough. That’s why it’s important to learn septicemia’s tell-tale symptoms so that you can quickly get on top of the situation.

Generally, the main causes of septicemia are an injury that gets infected or an illness such as shell rot that has gone unnoticed for a while. As with many other conditions, a turtle’s overall health plays a role in how likely it is to get this disease.

In this article we’re going to explain what Turtle Septicemia is, how to prevent it, treat it, and when to see a vet.

What is Turtle Septicemia?

Septicemia in red eared slider
Septicemia in red eared slider Image source

Septicemia, also referred to as sepsis, is a generalised blood infection. When a skin or shell infection goes unnoticed for too long, or becomes too severe, bacteria can enter the blood in high amounts and cause septicemia.

Septicemia on red eared sliders plastron
Septicemia on red eared sliders plastron Image source

 At this point we say that the infection is a systemic one, meaning that it has spread throughout the whole body.

In a nutshell, septicemia is an out-of-control infection that has entered the bloodstream. Due to this factor, the illness should be treated as an emergency. If left untreated, septicemia eventually leads to organ failure and death.


plastron of red eared slider with Septicemia
plastron of red eared slider with Septicemia Image source

Septicemia can be hard to identify at first. This is because some of its symptoms are similar to those for conditions like respiratory infections and shell rot. That said, others are more specific. Check out the list below:

  • Pink plastron (underside of shell)
  • Pink carapace (top of shell) – usually harder to spot
  • Lethargy (sluggishness)
  • Red/pink skin on neck or legs
  • Petechiae. These are blue, red, or purple spots under the skin, caused by burst capillaries
  • Very pale colour on inside of mouth
  • Swollen legs

Of these symptoms, lethargy and a pink plastron are the most common, and usually the first to set in. In turtles with a very dark shell, the pink colour may only be noticeable on patches of skin between the scutes (plates).

What causes Turtle Septicemia?

As with many turtle diseases, the main cause of septicemia is poor husbandry. Most cases are in fact caused by shell rot or injury. I recommend reading the Shell Rot article on this website for more information on preventing that condition.

Regardless of the root cause, septicemia in pet turtles usually involves bacteria. Previously, mainly gram-negative bacteria were blamed, but veterinarians are now noticing that a wide array of bacteria can be responsible, some of which are gram positive or gram neutral. Whichever group they belong to, these bacteria usually live in the animal’s enclosure without causing any issues beforehand.

An example of a gram neutral bacteria that has caused cases of septicemia is Mycobacterium chelonae. Interestingly, this was only noticed in 2009, when it infected a captive Eastern Spiny Softshell Turtle (Apalone s. spinifera).

In wild or farmed turtles, on the other hand, viral septicemia is also a problem. The Chinese Softshell (Pelodiscus sinensis), for example, is farmed in huge numbers in China. Since 2007, it has been the victim of a widespread septicemia epidemic caused by a poorly understood virus. As far as we know, this form of septicemia is contagious and quickly lethal.

Though sad to hear about, this strain of the disease is no concern to you if keeping captive bred turtles. Only fresh imports could carry it, and these rarely make good pets anyway.

Overall, septicemia in pet turtles is rarely infectious or viral. In fact, it is almost always from a bacterial skin or shell infection that was not caught early enough.

How to prevent Septicemia in turtles

plastron of red ear slider with septicemia
plastron of red ear slider with septicemia Image source

First off, it’s important to recognise that septicemia doesn’t just appear out of nowhere. In pet turtles it comes from opportunistic bacteria that were living in the enclosure and have found a way to attack your pet.

The first line of defence in a turtle’s immune system is its outer covering: the skin and scutes. This is what you call a physical barrier. Just like in humans, a cut through this physical barrier lets in germs that can colonise and attack the tissue underneath.

We’ve mentioned shell rot and injuries as the two most common causes of septicemia for this reason; they both break through the skin or shell. Following this breakthrough, the germs then either get killed or multiply and cause an infection. If that infection enters the blood stream it becomes septicemia.

Now at first glance, what I’ve said above makes it seem like any cut can lead to septicemia. This isn’t strictly true, however. Turtles are prone to topical infections because they spend so much time in water, which typically contains higher levels of bacteria than air. Fortunately, turtles are extremely tough, and a skin or shell infection can go on for some time before turning into septicemia.

The main factor that determines how bad an infection gets, and how quickly it progresses is your turtle’s overall health. A healthy turtle with a balanced diet and UV light exposure will be much better at fighting infection.

All in all, what this tells us is that to prevent this condition, you need a two-pronged approach. One way is to focus on enclosure safety, and the other way is to focus on overall health.

Enclosure safety is the easiest of these two factors to control. In an indoor enclosure, make sure that any rocks, branches, or decorations are smooth. Make sure that ledges the turtle climbs onto to bask have smooth edges too. Finally, make sure that the water is deep enough for the turtle to dive into if startled without banging into the bottom.

For outdoor enclosures take similar measures but be sure to re-inspect them regularly. Don’t forget that broken glass, sharp rocks, or other hazards can be found in soil. Even aquatic turtles may have a dig occasionally, especially if getting ready to lay eggs.

Overall health is more complicated – but very much achievable when using resources like this website to research your pet’s husbandry.

As always, the most important factor for overall health is temperature. A reptile’s immune system just can’t function at the wrong temperature. This can be different for each species, so it’s worth thoroughly researching and buying the right equipment to measure it.

After making sure your temperatures are correct, you need to make sure your pet has a balanced diet to avoid deficiencies. Vitamin A deficiency in particular is common in turtles and makes their skin more susceptible to infection. You can find an article on vitamin A deficiency here: Turtle Swollen Eyes and Vitamin A deficiencies.

Another factor that influences overall health and immune function is UV light exposure. Turtles use UVB light to synthesise Vitamin D, a vital hormone for calcium absorption and other functions. Lack of UV light makes illness of any kind much more likely. Always remember to change indoor UV bulbs every 9-12 months, as they lose effectiveness after this time. (See our UVB Bulb guide for more)

Last, but not least, pay attention to your pet’s hygiene. Regular water and substrate changes, a good filtration system and the removal of uneaten food all help maintain good hygiene. The better your pet’s hygiene is, the lower the microbial load in their enclosure will be. Low microbial load = less work for your pet’s immune system and better resistance to infection.

How to treat Turtle Septicemia

Home treatment for this illness is never recommended. It must be carried out by a veterinarian!

To diagnose the condition, your vet will first examine your pet turtle to rule out other infections. They will then take a blood sample for a culture. Depending on your vet’s experience, they will either start broad spectrum antibiotics immediately, or wait until the results of the culture to administer more specific drugs.

Systemic, prescription antibiotics are always necessary to treat bacterial septicemia. That said, the drugs can either be administered orally, via injection/drip, or via a feeding tube inserted into the side of the turtle’s neck. Which route is taken will depend on the severity of the illness, with intravenous antibiotics being the fastest to work, especially when administered through diffusion (a drip).

For viral septicemia, drug treatment is experimental at best. Fortunately, this is not commonly seen in pet turtles.

Generally, improvement can be seen within a week of antibiotic therapy. During this time, your pet will be kept at the vets for its care. This may sound distressing but is necessary, given how serious the condition is.

When to see a Vet

The most important factor when it comes to treating septicemia is to catch it early. If left too long a turtle with septicemia will have to be euthanised.

As soon as you notice any lethargy or change in behaviour, that is your clue that something is up. If you also notice a change in colour to your turtle’s plastron, or that its legs are swelling, then septicemia may be present.

At this point it’s important to contact a vet immediately and explain why you think septicemia or another infection is at play. As always, do try to find a specialist reptile vet if you can.

If your turtle’s plastron or legs have changed colour, don’t hesitate to show the vet photos of what it looked like before.

Wrapping up

It’s important to contact a vet as soon as you suspect septicemia. Though it sounds serious, treatment can be highly effective if started soon enough.

When it comes to what causes it, septicemia is rarely a condition that pops up out of nowhere! Nine times out of ten, you can trace it back to an injury or an infection such as shell rot.

This means that following treatment, a change to your pet’s enclosure and/or husbandry will be necessary to make sure it doesn’t happen again. The measures we’ve outlined in the prevention section of this article will all need researching for your pet turtle species.

As always, comment or use the forum on this website for more advice!

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