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Turtle Swollen Eyes and Vitamin A Deficiencies

My turtle has swollen eyes

​Swollen eyes are common in turtles and usually pneumonia related. Poor nutrition and dirty water could cause this as well.

If your turtle is sluggish, not eating, or shows any other symptom along with the swollen eyes, take your turtle to the vet.

It sounds like your turtle may have a serious health problem and could need antibiotics.

Vitamin A deficiency in turtles

Also known as Avitaminosis A, Vitamin A deficiency is a common but easily preventable disorder in captive turtles. Caused by an unbalanced diet, it can lead to health problems ranging from respiratory infections to aural abscesses – though swollen eyes are often the first noticeable symptom.

Whilst everyone knows vitamins are necessary for humans and animals alike, people often underestimate just how essential Vitamin A is for maintaining a turtle’s health.

Part of the problem, in my opinion, is that so many resources simply tell us “turtles need Vitamin A”, without giving us a full explanation of what it is or why they need it. With this article, we’re going to answer these questions first, then look at how to spot Vitamin A deficiency, how to treat it, how to use supplements and when to see a vet.

What is Vitamin A?

Vitamin A is an umbrella term used for a group of organic compounds. When we say Vitamin A it is generally referencing retinoids or provitamin A carotenoids.

Retinoids such as retinol are preformed types of Vitamin A that turtles get by eating other animals. Provitamin A carotenoids such as beta-carotene, on the other hand, are pigments found in vegetables and algae that turtles eat and then turn into the types of Vitamin A they need.

Vitamin A is fat-soluble – meaning that it is stored in fatty tissue and for longer periods of time than water soluble vitamins. This makes vitamin A overdose (hypervitaminosis A) just as possible as vitamin A deficiency.

This longer-term storage capability also means that baby turtles are still using Vitamin A they absorbed from their yolk – making Vitamin A deficiency rare in animals under 6-8 months of age.

Why do turtles need vitamin A?

Vitamin A is essential to turtles. They use it for a variety of biological functions, which in turn contribute to overall health. The main roles of vitamin A are to maintain the integrity and functions of the skin, mouth, ears, mucous membranes, and eyes.

In turtles who are in Vitamin A deficiency, a condition called squamous metaplasia is known to occur which blocks the eustachian tubes and inner ear, leading to a build-up of dead cells. That is why Vitamin A deficiency is believed to cause aural (ear) abscesses and related infections.

This is not the only way the vitamin is essential for their health, however. For example, turtles use Vitamin A to maintain healthy mucous membranes in their upper respiratory tract.

Mucous membranes are an essential physical barrier against germs, and when this barrier is broken down it often leads to bacterial respiratory infections.

Scientists have also found that Vitamin A contributes to a healthy rate of growth in young turtles.

How to spot vitamin A deficiency

An animal falls into Vitamin A deficiency when its diet fails to provide enough Vitamin A for it to maintain the organs mentioned above – this results in a loss of immunity and allows diseases to set in.

Because deficiency isn’t a disease in of itself, you must look out for the diseases or symptoms that are clues to its presence.

The most common diseases and symptoms caused by Vitamin A deficiency are:

  1. Swollen eyes, sometimes with pus
  2. Respiratory infection, usually with wheezing, sneezing, gasping and lop-sided swimming
  3. Lethargy (sluggishness)
  4. Unexplained weight loss or stunted growth
  5. Anorexia (refusal to eat)
  6. Aural (ear) abscesses which look like swellings behind the head
  7. Mouth rot
  8. Skin infections (red or white patches)

When to see a vet

As always, the person who knows your turtle best is you. Any change in behaviour should alert you to a potential problem. If you notice any of the above symptoms, consult a vet immediately.

Often, Vitamin A deficiency can go on for a while before causing problems, and not all these conditions will come on at once. When the deficiency gets serious, swollen eyes and aural abscesses are often the first signs.

If you see either of these symptoms you should suspect Vitamin A deficiency and ask your vet for help – even if your animal is still active or feeding.

How to treat it

Eastern Box turtle eating with vitamin a deficiency

There are two ways to treat Vitamin A deficiency: 1. Prevention through diet, and 2. Getting treatment from a vet.

Unsupervised treatment at home with oral drops is not recommended and can lead to overdose.

1. Prevention through diet

Obviously, it’s impossible to give your animals the exact diet they would have in the wild, so you need to keep an eye on their vitamin intake, month after month, year after year.

What you want to aim for is a diet that is as varied and balanced as possible. This means that an all meat or all light green veg diet is a no-go!

Let’s look at a couple of example diets to see how you can do this, one for a carnivorous turtle and one for an omnivorous turtle.

Carnivorous turtle diet:

This is the kind of diet that would suit a softshell turtle. The bulk of it is live prey – because that’s what they like!

Part A: 80-90% of their weekly intake by size should be a mix of live prey such as bait fish (not goldfish), worms, night-crawlers, crickets, Superworms, mealworms, wax worms, locusts, and live pinkie mice (if you have the stomach for it!).

Keep this part of the diet as varied as you can but always make sure gut-loaded bugs are in there once or twice a month! Keep reading to find out what gut-loading is.

Part B: 10-20% of their weekly intake by size should be high-quality turtle pellets.

Omnivorous turtle diet:

This kind of diet would suit a Slider. Many omnivorous aquatic turtles are more carnivorous as juveniles so their diet needs adjusting as they grow.

Part A: 60% of a juvenile and 40% of an adult omnivorous turtle’s weekly intake should be the mix of live prey items I’ve described above.

Part B: 20% of both juvenile and adult omnivorous turtle diets should be high-quality turtle pellets.

Part C: 20% of a juvenile and 40% of an adult omnivorous turtle’s diet should be vegetables and greens. These can include dandelions (washed thoroughly in case of pesticides), collard greens, mustard greens, romaine lettuce and turnip greens – all of which contain decent amounts of Vitamin A.

Melon and strawberries can be added as treats once every few weeks. Swiss chard is often recommended for Vitamin A content, but it should only be fed once a week at most because it contains high levels of oxalates which can interfere with calcium absorption.

Cooked sweet potato and carrots contain high levels of carotenoids, but also have a lot of sugar so should only be an occasional treat.

This makes 60/20/20%, Parts A, B and C for a juvenile, and 40/20/40% Parts A, B and C for    an adult.

Let your pet eat as much as they like for 15-20 minutes every day. Remember that you don’t have to make these percentages exact, just as close as you can. Do it by eye and keep a record of what you feed and when.

I do this by keeping a food diary for each pet, in which I record their meals. This means I can go back at any time and review my animals’ diets to make sure I’m giving them enough variety.

As always, make sure to research your turtle species and find out what their natural diet is. Even closely related species can have different diets. The Ornate Box Turtle (Terrapene o. ornata), for example, is much more carnivorous than its relatives.

What is gut-loading?

Crickets_feeding_on_carrot for gut loading
Crickets feeding on carrot for gut loading

In both these diets, the crickets and other bugs should be “gut-loaded”. This means they were fed a vitamin-rich food for a few days before feeding (it’s often referred to as “cricket feed”, “super load”, or similar names).

You can do this yourself or find a pet shop that sells them gut-loaded and ready for feeding. If you run out of cricket feed, you can also use the carotenoid-rich vegetables listed above to gut load, though this takes a little more effort. Feeder animals should always be captive raised as wild ones can contain parasites!

2. Getting treatment from a vet

If you take a turtle that already has vitamin A deficiency to the vets, they will treat any associated diseases with antibiotics and then start supplementation with Vitamin A injections, or oral drops. Sometimes, they will use a blood test to determine your animals Vitamin A levels, but not always.

With this kind of treatment, it is essential that you never miss an appointment and that you make any changes to your pet’s diet that the vet tells you to.

Generally, a vet can reverse Vitamin A deficiency and give you the advice you need to stop it from coming back – listen to them carefully!

Vitamin A supplements and drops

Vitamin A eye drops are used for treating turtles with sore or swollen eyes due to Vitamin A deficiency. They can, in appearance, work quite well. Some of the Vitamin A is absorbed, and your turtle’s eyes may show improvement within a couple of weeks.

The problem, however, is that they are a band-aid solution. Use them while waiting for a vet appointment if you wish – but don’t consider them a long-term supplement or cure.

So, what supplements should we use? The best way of giving your turtle a Vitamin A supplement is through gut-loaded insects. In fact, I have only ever used gut-loaded insects as a means of supplementation, and this method is by far the safest for your turtle.

Make sure he or she gets gut-loaded insects once a month alongside a balanced diet. Don’t hesitate to ask your supplier about this if you do not gut-load them yourself.

Video on vitamin A deficiency in turtles

Wrapping up

Vitamin A deficiency is a condition that vets can often treat successfully – don’t hesitate to contact them if you notice any of the symptoms I’ve listed, or a change in your pet’s behaviour.

That said, prevention is by far the best way to deal with this condition, and if your pet is currently healthy, it is possible to avoid Vitamin A deficiency entirely.

To this end, research and organisation are key. Familiarise yourself with your pet’s natural diet and then keep a diary of what you feed it and when.

As always, comment or get in touch for more advice!

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