Fungal infections of turtles are very common and are usually caused by poor sanitation in the turtle’s tank. It is incredibly difficult to keep a turtle’s environment clean because of their habit of taking their food into the water to eat it and then subsequently defecating in the water as well. This makes for a very slimy, smelly substrate which is absolutely perfect for the development of fungus. Add to that the fact that the tank is always nice and humid and warm and really the only surprising thing is that every turtle does not have a rampaging fungal infection all the time.
Spotting a fungus
The first signs of a fungal infection are small patches, usually on the shell but occasionally on the legs or neck. These are green in colour and should not be confused with the white patches which are the first sign of a shed on the skin or shell. These shedding patches are quite distinctive – use a magnifying glass to see them closely – as they are clearly a layer of the shell loosening from the lower one. Again, there is a need to get used to these as they are quite distinct from shell rot, which is also a parting of the layers of the shell. In shell rot, though, it usually starts at an injury site and goes much deeper than one layer. It also looks unhealthy and may have fluid under the lifted layer and there is almost always an unpleasant smell. Fungal growths look like small raised greenish patches and can grow quite quickly.
Treatment of fungal infections in turtles
As long as the turtle is otherwise well and you have definitely identified the patches as fungus, getting rid of them is relatively easy. The environment will need to be cleaned out thoroughly before returning the turtle to it, so it is a good idea to prepare alternative quarters for the animal to stay in before getting to work on eradicating the fungus from the skin and shell. Also, all other companion turtles will need to be treated, although it is unlikely in any event that only one is affected. The first part of the treatment is to clean the animal off, using a very soft toothbrush and some hypoallergenic soap – anything fragrance free will do. Don’t use too much – just enough to soften and remove the main growths of the fungus. Then the turtle should be rinsed and dried off completely. If it doesn’t like being handled, put it in the clean habitat under a lamp to dry off, then wipe it all over with a very dilute solution of iodine. Your vet will be able to recommend a suitable brand. Don’t dry the turtle off with a towel this time, but put it back to dry under a lamp. Alternate this treatment with a salt bath, again allowing the solution to dry on the shell. Fungi hate salt and so this will both kill the old fungus and inhibit the growth of new. Both of these treatments should ideally be continued for at least a fortnight.
Cleaning the tank and keeping it clean.
While the turtle is enjoying its spa treatment, clean out the tank thoroughly by emptying it out completely and scrubbing the glass until it is totally clean. Make sure that you brush in all the corners. Clean off or replace any moveable features like basking platforms and allow it all to dry off before replacing the water and returning the turtles. Water filters designed for fish tanks don’t cope too well with turtle environments as turtles are much dirtier feeders and pooers than fish and the filter is not often up to the task. Once you have got rid of all the fungi and moulds in the tank, a good plan is to replace half of the water once a week.
This way any beneficial bacteria stay present, but the much of the gunk is removed. Try and keep on top of fragments of food in the water and keep the glass as clean as possible. A basking lamp is vital for the general health of the turtle, as it needs to get dry once in a while as well as being warm. If the animal is always wet, cold and dirty it will not only almost certainly fall victim to more fungal infections but it will also be very likely to develop much more serious conditions such as shell rot and respiratory tract infections.
Prevention is so easy and is summed up in one word – cleanliness. Two words make it even clearer – scrupulous cleanliness. Turtles are engaging pets but are not the cleanest animals in the world and keeping them clean is a rather major task. They are often bought as pets for children and although having the responsibility of a pet is a good child rearing strategy, cleaning out a turtle habitat is not a job for a child, so any parent thinking of getting a turtle must bear this in mind. It can be smelly and is one of those tasks which has to be done regularly or the turtle will be unhappy and sickly. But a happy healthy turtle is not a difficult thing to achieve and if you manage it, it will give you many years of pleasure – the average lifespan of a turtle kept in good conditions is at least thirty years, so if you give it to a child as a pet it may end up the pet of his or her grandchildren. Now, that’s something you can’t say of the average hamster!