Turtles and tortoises are remarkably hardy animals. Many
wild turtles survive multiple traumas in their lifetimes,
from attacks by animals to extended periods without food
and/or water. But, like any animal, there are diseases and
problem to which they are vulnerable.
Here are some of the more common possible health disease or
disorder symptoms to watch for in your turtles and
tortoises, along with the common causes and steps to take to
help your pets back to health.
If the shell has spots that look rough as though they have
been sanded, some spots are softer than the surrounding
shell, and the color of the spots is different from the rest
of the shell, the turtle has an infection by bacteria,
fungus, or both. Basic treatment should include warmer
quarters, cleaning the shell and applying antiseptic or
triple antibiotic and scrupulous cleanliness of the turtle's
habitat, especially until the shell is healed. If your
turtle has red spots on the undershell that weren't there
before, it will need antibiotic treatment from your vet for
a bacterial blood infection.
If any part of the shell is cracked or broken by trauma such
as accident, attack by another animal, falling, etc. the
shell may need patching. If the area is small, treats as
above. If the break is serious, you will need to take the
turtle to a veterinarian to have the shell patched until it
If the shell is softer than it should be and/or deformed
with a bumpy surface, and/or the beak is overgrown, you may
be seeing Metabolic Bone Disease caused by poor diet or lack
of sunshine. Mild cases may be cured by a diet improvement
and a good full-spectrum UVB light. More serious cases
should be evaluated by your vet.
A problem with the beak (mouth) that looks like a wound may
be "mouth rot" and if so it will need immediate antibiotic
treatment from the vet.
A swelling on the side of the turtle's head, just behind its
jaw, is probably an ear infection and unless you are very
experienced with animals and their medical care, you will
need to let your vet treat the turtle, as it will need daily
care and cleaning of the infection for at least a week, and
possibly antibiotics as well.
Lumps under the skin may be fly larvae, and the wound will
need to be filled with petroleum jelly to kill the maggots,
then cleaned and filled with triple antibiotic cream daily
Seriously peeling skin with the open areas red and moist is
a symptom of too much vitamin A in the diet. Put the turtle
into a hospital tank, treat the sore areas with triple
antibiotic, and reduce the amount of high vitamin A foods
the turtle is eating.
Red, swollen eyes may be caused by a bacterial infection, a
respiratory illness or a vitamin A deficiency in the diet.
Apply a small amount of an ophthalmic antibiotic to the eyes
three times a day for at least a week. If the problem
persists, there is likely a vitamin A problem also.
White areas on the eyes are also signs of bacterial
conjunctivitis, and you will need to treat as above, plus
carefully and gently remove the white pus from the eyes with
a Q-Tip once the eye has opened enough to do so. Then
continue with the antibiotic ointment treatment until the
eyes look well.
Eyes that are sticky with the turtle keeping them closed are
usually caused by vitamin A deficiency. Soak the turtle for
thirty minutes per day to help it keep its eyes clean. A
mild case should clear up with a few drops of cod liver oil
added to the food a couple of times per week. Serious cases
may need an injection from a veterinarian.
A runny nose or bubbles on the nostrils, or apparent
breathing problems, are probably a symptom of a
infection and/or vitamin A deficiency. Help out the turtle's
immune system by keeping it in a very clean hospital tank
kept at least ten degrees Fahrenheit warmer than its normal
housing. Make sure it has plenty of healthful food and clean
water, that its diet has adequate vitamin A, and watch it
for a week to ten days. If it is not getting better, you'll
need to take it to the vet for antibiotic treatment.
If your turtle seems to be losing weight even though it eats
well or if it begins to avoid food and seem sluggish, it may
have a problem with worms, especially if it was wild-caught
or lives with wild-caught turtles. Take it to your
veterinarian and have its feces tested for intestinal worms.
(This should be done once or twice a year as a preventative
measure even with turtles that appear healthy.)
If there are no parasites, but it isn't eating well, it may
be constipated. A diet that is too high in protein or low in
fiber for the species can cause constipation. Another
possible cause of constipation in land turtles and tortoises
may be dehydration. One thing that often helps is soaking
the turtle for thirty minutes daily in shallow lukewarm
water. Once it is better, soak it weekly, and make sure its
habitat allows for daily soaking if the turtle wishes to do
so. Also make sure the humidity is proper for the species.
Other possible causes for a turtle or tortoise stopping its
normal eating habits is if it is a female carrying eggs, if
it has recently been moved to a new habitat and hasn't yet
adjusted, or if it is too cold. A bowel blockage, torsion,
or egg binding can also cause these symptoms, so if the
problem isn't resolved within a few days, contact the
This is hard to check in water turtles, easier for land
turtles. Turtles should defecate every day that they are
fed, so try to watch for feces. If the turtle's droppings
have a white powdery part a few times per week, it is normal
excretion of excess protein. But if the droppings are very
watery or always white you should have the turtle tested for
parasites, and it may need a series of antibiotic
If the turtle is not passing feces see the advice above in
Diet/Eating Changes. If it has diarrhea, check its diet
first. Too much fruit or the wrong type of protein (like
fish to American Box Turtles) can cause diarrhea. Change the
diet and soak the turtle daily to help prevent dehydration.
If that doesn't help within a couple of days, it may be a
parasite invasion, and the vet must be consulted.
General Body Changes
If something is sticking out of the turtle's rear end and it
isn't its tail, and picking up the turtle doesn't cause the
protrusion to go back inside the turtle, it has a prolapse
of the bowel or reproductive organs. This is serious. Cover the
protruding part with a damp cloth and get the turtle to the
If a female turtle is just lying with her legs sticking out
backward, and before that she has been soaking or digging,
she is likely egg-bound. Make sure she has a warm place in
the habitat suitable for her species to lay eggs, give her a
good soaking if she is a land turtle, and if she still
doesn't lay within a few hours, you probably need to let the
veterinarian take a look at her. Also look for signs of a
vitamin A deficiency, and treat if needed.
If the turtle is dragging its hind legs it has a serious
bowel problem or is egg bound. If you can't see the cause of
the problem, consult your reptile vet as soon as possible.
If your turtle is more or less active than normal, consider
the season of the year. Breeding season can lead to much
more activity, especially in males, and autumn can cause
turtles that naturally hibernate in the wild to slow down or
stop eating, become listless, etc. If the turtle is an adult
and is in good condition, prepare both it and its
hibernation spot for hibernation. If it is young or not
healthy, give it as much warmth as its species can tolerate,
and fourteen hours of light per day, to keep it eating
through the winter.