By Tom Greek, M.S. DVM
Imagine a beautiful sunny day. You are lying on a raft in a shimmering pool, taking in the warm rays, and there is faint tropical music playing in the background. From the side of the pool someone yells, “Dinner!” and tosses your afternoon meal into the water. You’re hungry, so you jump in, grabbing what you can before it sinks to the bottom. You are also a little thirsty, so you drink up some of the pool water before climbing back up on your raft to relax. After waking from your nap, the call of nature comes. So, you jump into the pool to relieve yourself, happy that the blue dye rumored to reveal anyone peeing in the pool is just an urban myth. Sound a little far-fetched? Not so if you are an aquatic turtle.
Get a Handle on Turtle Husbandry
Many, if not most, of the medical problems seen in aquatic turtles stem from incorrect turtle husbandry and poor water quality. Turtles literally live in their own toilet. So, it is up to us to provide everything necessary and keep that “toilet bowl” as clean as possible.
Having been around for some 200 million years, turtles have adapted to a wide variety of habitats. With more than 300 species worldwide, we can develop some general guidelines for their care that will cover many but not all of these species. You can prevent many medical problems by doing your research before purchasing your new pet. What follows are some general tips that will help keep your turtles in top shape.
1. Provide a Healthy Home
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Regular maintenance will keep your turtle's home in top condition and keep the water clean. A turtle tank shouldn’t smell like. . . well, a turtle tank. If you have a bad odor coming from the water, you are probably not keeping it clean enough.
Gone are the days when a little plastic bowl with a tiny green palm tree in the middle could be considered adequate turtle housing. Tank size is determined by the size and number of turtles you keep. Obviously, a larger size or greater number of individuals will require bigger cages.
Tanks that are too small will contain a higher ratio of waste products in the water and will cause stress. A stressed turtle will have a compromised immune system and will be more prone to infection. There are not too many instances where the tank can be too large, other than the occupants having trouble finding the food provided.
While many of us use fish aquariums for our turtles, there are other options as well. Any container that holds water can be used. There are now some great plastic tubs on the market that provide both a water and land area in the same tub. Outdoor ponds are popular with many turtle enthusiasts, even if only for the warmer months in some parts of the country. No matter what you use, the ability to easily clean the enclosure is an important part of keeping your turtles healthy.
2. Be Warm
As ectotherms, turtles require an external heat source to obtain the proper body temperatures for optimum physiological functioning. There are two schools of thought on how to heat aquatic turtles. The first is to have a basking lamp. This simulates heating from the sun and encourages the turtle to get out of the water to allow the shell to dry out. The second is to heat the water. This method is perfect for more aquatic species that may not spend much time basking. The downside is the inability to create a temperature gradient that allows the turtle to choose the perfect temperature it desires. Depending on the species you are working with or the climate you live in, a combination of these methods may work best for you.
3. Lighten Up
Ultraviolet light is necessary for proper calcium absorption. This is important for young, growing turtles, but it is a benefit for all ages. Don’t skimp on lighting. Without a source of UVB light, turtles cannot maintain shell and bone health. If kept outside, turtles will benefit from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. If kept indoors, you will need to provide your turtle with a UVB light.
4. Offer Solid Nutrition
A good diet is essential for turtle health. Again, learning the requirements of the species you keep will be vital in determining the correct diet. Vitamin and mineral supplementation may be needed depending on the food you feed. Aquatic turtles prefer to eat in the water. Offer food daily for young turtles, and two or three times a week for adults. Remove uneaten food, as this can affect water quality.
5. Water Quality Counts
Uneaten food and feces can foul the water, so adequate filtration and regular water changes are a must. There are filtration units for every size enclosure, from small aquariums to large ponds. Regular maintenance will keep them in top condition and keep the water clean.
A turtle tank shouldn’t smell like. . . well, a turtle tank. If you have a bad odor coming from the water, you are probably not keeping it clean enough. Check the filter to make sure it is clean and perform frequent water changes with aged water. You can also use water treated with conditioners or dechlorinators. While our turtle pets may not be as sensitive to chlorine as fish or amphibians, it isn’t going to hurt to take the extra precaution.
When Medical Problems Strike
One of the key traits in a good reptilekeeper is a keen sense of observation. The goal is to catch problems early, before they become fatal. Turtles have a tendency to hide their symptoms until diseases are advanced, so the early signs may be very subtle. The more you recognize what is normal, the quicker you’ll pick up on what is abnormal.
If you notice something wrong, check your husbandry. Did the heat lamp burn out? Have you been a little lax on cleaning the tank? Forgot to pick up a new container of food and feeding a less-than-ideal diet? Correcting your husbandry may be all you need to take care of many of the following medical problems.
Vitamin A Deficiency
What it looks like: Turtles not getting enough vitamin A in their diet may have swollen eyelids. Without testing, the symptoms can appear very similar to eye infections.
Treatment: Most of these cases will respond well to vitamin A treatment.
Prevention: A good diet is the key to prevention.
Aural or Ear Abscesses
What it looks like: As the purulent material builds up under the tympanic membrane, a swelling will develop on the side of the head. Unsanitary water conditions and vitamin A deficiencies are both thought to play a part in aural abscesses.
Treatment: Minor surgery is needed to treat the abscess, but the underlying conditions must be addressed to prevent reoccurrence.
Prevention: Clean water and the right diet.
Respiratory Tract Disease
What it looks like: Symptoms of respiratory tract disease may be as mild as a slight nasal discharge, some open mouth breathing or even increased mucus in the mouth. Severe cases can cause fluid buildup in the lungs, affecting buoyancy and causing the turtle to swim with a list to one side. Most of us think of bacterial infections when we think of respiratory tract diseases, but in fact, there are many potential causes for the exact same symptoms. Viral, fungal and parasite infections can all appear the same as a bacterial infection in a sick turtle. Aspiration pneumonia, foreign bodies up a nostril and cancer are other potential causes for respiratory disease.
Treatment: Only by knowing the cause can we expect to cure your pet. Appropriate testing may include radiographs, culture, lung washes and cytology. An experienced reptile veterinarian will help you through the maze of options to try and get your turtle healthy again. Once the cause of the problem is identified, the appropriate treatment can begin.
Prevention: Proper husbandry is essential because this is a multifactorial disease.
What it looks like: In the 17-plus years I’ve been a veterinarian, I’ve seen turtles get dropped on the floor, fall out of their tanks, get crushed by rocks, chewed on by dogs, half eaten by raccoons, run over by cars, sat on and stepped on. I’ve seen holes chewed through the skin by aggressive cagemates, turtles sucked into filter pumps, skin irritated by fish in the tank, severe burns from heat lamps and feet worn raw by crawling on rough surfaces.
Treatment: Treatment for trauma depends on the severity of the lesions. Stopping whatever caused it in the first place may be adequate for mild cases. More severe trauma may require surgical intervention, shell repair, limb amputation, antibiotics and pain medication.
Prevention: Creating a safe environment will help prevent some of these problems. Make sure that basking sites and cage furniture are sturdy and can’t tumble down on the turtles. Surfaces should be rough enough for good traction, but watch for evidence that the surfaces are too rough and are damaging the skin and shell. Some turtles can be pretty good climbers, so watch for potential escape routes. Too many dogs view turtles as chew toys that move, so it is often best to keep Fido and Speedy apart. Professional pest control may be needed to keep raccoons out of your yard. Many filters come with fish guards over the intake tube, and this will help prevent turtles from being sucked into the filter. Aggressive cagemates may need to be removed to prevent further bites.
What it looks like: Ingesting foreign objects is a common problem. I’ve had cases of turtles eating enough gravel to clog their gastrointestinal systems. They can also swallow any metal, plastic or rubber object that can fit in their mouths.
Treatment: While small amounts of objects or small-sized objects may pass, sometimes medical intervention, such as surgery, is needed.
Prevention: Once again, your husbandry options will have to be altered to remove anything turtles might swallow from the enclosure.
What it looks like: Dystocia is the medical term used for difficulty giving birth. You probably know it better as egg-binding. Female turtles can produce eggs whether they’ve been with a male or not. If everything goes the way it is supposed to, a female will lay her eggs without any problems. But in a cage she may lack appropriate laying sites.
Treatment: While some turtles will just lay them in the water or on their basking site, others will hold on to the eggs and require medical attention, such as surgery.
Prevention: If you have female turtles, consider providing an egg-laying area in your cage design.
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Turtles have a tendency to hide their symptoms until diseases are advanced, so the early signs may be very subtle. The more you recognize what is normal, the quicker you’ll pick up on what is abnormal.
What it looks like: Shell lesions have many potential causes, including poor water quality, inadequate heat or basking areas, burns, stress and rough substrates. Symptoms range from mild irritation and superficial redness to soft spots of rotten bone and foul odor, sometimes even progressing to death.
Treatment: Treatment may require aggressive surgical debridement, culture of the infected bone, and antibiotics for an extended period of time.
Prevention: Look carefully at husbandry techniques. Provide quality water, adequate lighting and heat, and a place where the turtle can haul out of the water to dry out.
A Little Prevention Goes a Long Way
As you have probably noticed, poor turtle husbandry is either solely or partially responsible for so many of the medical problems found in aquatic turtles. The old saying “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” holds true in turtle care. Do your research before you purchase a pet to be sure you can provide all the necessary elements your new turtle requires. Properly cared for turtles have the potential of living a long time. I’ve got a client with a red-eared slider she raised as a hatchling more than 40 years ago that is still doing great. There are records of some turtle species living much longer than that.
So, yes, as disgusting as it sounds, turtles live in their own toilet. But by following some basic turtle husbandry guidelines, maintaining good water quality, observing closely for any signs of problems, and seeking veterinary attention when needed, you can have a unique and interesting pet for many years to come. REPTILES
TOM GREEK, DVM, is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin and a Southern California native. He practices small and exotic animal medicine at Yorba Linda Veterinary Hospital in Yorba Linda, Calif.