Every once-in-a-while, your turtle or tortoise may sneeze. Generally, this is nothing to worry about and may be a result of food or substrate irritating the animal’s airways.
It can in fact be incredibly cute! Occasionally though, a sneeze can be a sign of an Upper Respiratory Tract Disease (URTD) and will require immediate veterinary treatment to cure the infection.
URTDs are a problem for turtles and tortoises alike, with some even being involved in the decline of rare species such as the beautiful Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizii), which is targeted by a species of URTD-causing bacteria called Mycoplasma agassizii.
Very frequent and persistent sneezing in turtles and tortoises does tend to be a sign of this type of infection, which is why this article focuses so heavily on URTDs.
The good news is that because URTDs are a common problem in captive turtles, reptile vets tend to be experts at treating them. Furthermore, slight adjustments to your husbandry can make a big difference.
In this article, we’re going to look at when to see a vet and what you can do to help.
Table of Contents
My Turtle Is Sneezing
Was That A Sneeze Or A Cough?
Turtles and tortoises do indeed make a tiny, high-pitched, sneezing sound – almost like a squeak. It is generally easy to recognize and you will have no doubt about it.
Coughing, on the other hand, is slightly less recognizable and often sounds like a croak, accompanied by a jerky head movement.
When underwater, a sneeze or a cough can look like a weird, full body jerk, with the animal’s arms, legs and head suddenly moving in unison.
Repeated coughing, sneezing, or wheezing can be the sign of an URTD. If you identify any of these actions in your pet it is time to start observing it more closely!
Video Of Turtle Sneezing
Video Of Tortoise Sneezing
What About The Sharp Hiss I Just Heard?
Because the amount of space inside the shell is limited, air must leave the lungs whenever a turtle’s head and legs are withdrawn, and this sudden exhalation makes a strong hissing sound.
This is absolutely nothing to worry about, nor is it usually a sign of aggression. On the contrary, it is a sign of an alert, active animal.
What Causes An Upper Respiratory Tract Disease (URTD) In Turtles?
You may hear people refer to respiratory infections in reptiles as the equivalent to catching a cold… This is a tad misleading though, as URTDs often kill up to a quarter of wild animals they infect and possibly a higher percentage of captive ones if husbandry is poor.
Also, unlike human colds that are only caused by a handful of viruses, URTDs in turtles can be caused by viral, bacterial, coccidian, or fungal pathogens – with the first two being the most common.
Very occasionally the infection can be parasitic, though this is rare in captive animals.
Bacteria that cause URTDs in turtles and tortoises tend to be what are called Gram-negative bacteria and therefore can be treated more easily with some antibiotics than others. This is massively helpful for veterinarians when it comes to getting a head start in treating them.
Viruses that cause URTDs are a diverse bunch that includes Adenoviruses, Herpesviruses, Ranaviruses and Iridoviruses, to name a few. Some of these also cause pneumonia in turtles.
Most importantly, veterinarians have discovered that many of these germs occur in healthy reptiles without ever causing disease – unless the animal becomes weakened. The take-away is that poor husbandry is often the true cause of an URTD.
Some scientists have found that wild box turtles who died from respiratory infections also had aural abscesses and histological (only visible under a microscope) lesions – a tell-tale sign of Vitamin A deficiency (avitaminosis A). A varied, healthy diet that provides enough vitamin A may be a major tool for preventing URTDs.
Another observation made by scientists was that many wild or outdoor-kept turtles have been found to be suffering from URTDs following sudden cold spells.
This supports my personal experience that sudden drops in temperature, and the impact they have on a turtle’s immune system, can lead to URTDs setting in.
In some cases, your turtle can catch an URTD from a new animal in your collection – always quarantine new animals in a separate room and wash your hands after touching them!
When To See A Vet
As I mention before, an occasional sneeze is usually nothing to worry about. That said, you should pay attention to your turtle when it sneezes and take note of how frequently it does so.
If your pet turtle or tortoise sneezes or coughs several times in a 24hr period and demonstrates other unusual behaviours, then you should book an appointment at your reptile vet immediately! It could be the sign of an URTD.
Other common symptoms of an URTD include:
- Lethargy (sluggishness)
- Open mouth breathing and stretching the neck out for no apparent reason
- Mucus coming from the mouth, nose, or eyes – sometimes making bubbles
- Epiphora (excessive watering of the eyes)
- Limp behaviour when basking i.e. legs, head hanging down as if fast asleep
- Loss of appetite
- Lop-side or unusual swimming (usually happens if the infection has progressed to pneumonia)
- Tortoises and terrestrial turtles walking in circles (less common but has been documented).
- For aquatic turtles, sudden lack of fear, such as not diving into the water when you pass in front of their enclosure
- Swellings behind the head (usually when Vitamin A deficiency is also present)
These can also be symptoms of a Lower Respiratory Tract Disease, such as pneumonia. Either way, get help ASAP!
As the keeper, you should always pay close attention to any change in your animal’s behaviour. Sometimes it only takes a few hours of monitoring a turtle to see there are clues that it needs help from a vet.
What Will The Vet Do?
How a vet diagnoses and treats an URTD will depend on their personal level of experience, as well as their preferred methods. Some vets can literally put a reptile to their ear, listen to it breathing for a few seconds, and tell you if there’s a problem!
Others will prefer a more in-depth approach to diagnosis, utilising swab tests/cultures and x-rays to detect an URTD and determine what microbes are responsible.
Bear in mind that your veterinarian will be drawing on results of clinical treatment of previous animals, and the identity of infections they have seen going around in the local reptile community – so neither way is necessarily “better”.
The main thing to remember is that this is a common problem, so you can have confidence that a reptile vet will have dealt with it many times before – if it’s possible to save the animal, they will.
If your vet strongly suspects a bacterial cause, then your turtle will be given antibiotic injections and/or nasal drops. Very occasionally, you may be given some of these to administer yourself in the following weeks. Don’t be afraid of this! Follow your vet’s instructions and you will do fine.
The truth is that most URTDs do tend to be bacterial, and I personally would have no problem with my vet giving my turtle antibiotics without taking a swab test and culture first.
If, on the other hand, a virus, fungus, or uncommon bacteria is suspected, then treatment may consist of putting the animal in an enclosure with antimicrobial medicine nebulised into the air once or twice a day. This can be done at home or at the vets depending on how ill the animal is.
What Can You Do To Help?
If your vet finds no evidence of an URTD then you have some investigating to do! This could mean that it was in fact dust or chemicals irritating your pet and creating an allergy. Common culprits include cleaning sprays, dust from vacuuming and carpet cleaning products.
If, on the other hand, your turtle is diagnosed with an URTD, talk to your vet about how your husbandry can be improved. If they find that vitamin A deficiency is involved, ask them to recommend a high-quality supplement and advise you on the dosage.
For improving temperatures in your setup, make sure you check the temperatures in the water, on land, and at your turtle’s favourite basking spot.
For checking the basking spot an infrared temperature gun is highly recommended – this will allow you to read the exact temperature of where your animal is basking, and they have become very affordable these days.
A good measure is to raise the temperature of the basking spot by around 5F (2.7C), this will help support immune system function.
If an aquatic turtle is extremely ill your vet may also suggest keeping it out of water for a time.
Never try to treat an URTD at home! URTDs can simmer for weeks, then suddenly turn into acute pneumonia, taking your animal to a point of no return. Ignore all Youtube videos, articles, friends, or anyone else who tells you to treat an URTD without the help of a vet!
If you keep a turtle outdoors, an URTD from local animals is a small but real possibility. There is little you can do to prevent this, other than seek veterinary aid as soon as possible.
Is it worth keeping your animal indoors in case it one day catches a disease – even though they love basking in their pool in the yard? That is up to you and depends on whether you feel that you can keep it as happy indoors. I’ve always kept most of my animals indoors, and with a good setup they are perfectly happy.
That said, URTDs in captive animals do tend to be from husbandry errors, rather than part of a natural epidemic.
This is good news: it means that you have the power to prevent your animal from getting ill in the first place, or to adjust your husbandry and prevent an URTD from coming back.
If you do suspect that your animal’s sneezing is the sign of an URTD, get help from a vet immediately, then get to work on double checking your husbandry. Your vet will more than likely cure the animal, and the URTD will soon be nothing more than a bad memory.
In general, correct temperature, hygiene, diet and UVB exposure will cure 99% percent of captive turtle illnesses before they start. For helping or preventing URTDs, however, attention should be paid to temperatures and diet, as these are by far the biggest factors involved.
Having read this article, you should now have a good idea of whether your turtle’s sneezing is normal, or if you need to consult a vet.
As always, comment or get in touch for more advice!
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