Eye problems in tortoises and turtles are fairly common and not usually too difficult to treat. Turtles are often treated with an injection if antibiotics are required simply because it is impossible to keep ointments or drops on the eye for long enough to take effect, but as a rule it is not necessary to use any other treatment but cleanliness and attention to the healing process.
Healthy chelonian eyes
Turtles and tortoises usually have bright black eyes and they are a lot of the charm of the animal. If they appear cloudy or if the lids are puffy this is obvious more quickly than in some other reptiles where the eyes are far more hooded and do not have the brightness you see in shelled animals. The lids are fairly hard looking and the upper lid is hardly mobile at all, although the lower lid moves much more. If you look carefully you will probably just see the third eyelid in the inner corner of the eye. This is hardly visible at all when the animal is well. Turtles and tortoises have no tear duct to drain away the tears as most other animals do, so any secretions which bathe the eye must spill down the face and in reasonable quantities this is perfectly normal.
Injury or infection
A bit of detective work and common-sense will soon sort out whether the eye problem that your tortoise or turtle is suffering from is because of an infection or an injury. To begin with, it is unlikely to be an infection if it is only on one side. If there are signs like a swollen lid or one eye is closed, it is likely to be because of a scratch or possibly a small burn if there is a heat lamp in the habitat. If the tortoise is out in the garden, it could be a sting or a thorn has affected the eye. If the eye is closed and is gummy, it may help to try and get it open with a cotton wool ball soaked in boiled water that has been allowed to cool almost to room temperature. If this doesn’t work, then a visit to the vet is in order.
If both eyes are affected or the animal keeps rubbing its eyes although they look normal, it could be that there is an infection or it might be environmental such as dust or another irritant. If the eyes are open, look for small ulcers on the cornea, or clouding. Drops or ointments for humans can be used as a short term measure to make the tortoise or turtle more comfortable, but they should be taken to the vet as soon as it is convenient. If your tortoise wakes from hibernation with an eye problem, look for any foreign bodies which may have got into its eye from the bedding.
Treatment of eye problems
Many eye problems in turtles and tortoises are quite easy to sort out because they are because of mechanical damage, a scratch or a grass seed or something similar. If they are because of an infection, antibiotic creams or an injection will usually do the trick. Sometimes a tortoise will develop cataracts and these are left to take their course.
A blind tortoise will manage very well as long as its environment is risk free and of course if it is used to roaming in the garden it will need an enclosure to stop it getting itself lost, but other than that it will be fine. Sometimes, cataracts can form if the tortoise’s eyes freeze over in hibernation. This is rare but is a very good reason for making sure it is bedded down safely. These cases can resolve but in the meantime the tortoise will need more care and can behave rather erratically, as the blindness will not have been gradual. More rarely, the eye problem is caused by Vitamin A deficiency but this is something which only a vet can discover, by blood tests and also possibly a food diary.
Prevention of eye problems in chelonians
Although there are two main reasons for turtles and tortoises developing eye problems, the preventative measures are much the same and that is to be very careful with habitat and bedding. Infections and injury are both normally caused by either dirty or inappropriate bedding so by giving a lot of thought to this, most eye problems can be prevented. In the case of turtles, the water in the habitat should not only be clean but also the right temperature, as if it is too cold the animal will become stressed and will be more prone to infection. Any heat lamps in the area should be well away from sleeping and eating areas and should ideally be high up in the habitat to prevent accidental burns.
Vitamin deficiencies and also stress can be prevented very easily by feeding a nutritious and appropriate diet. This is simpler if species are kept together making them easier to feed, with the added advantage that there will be less risk of fighting. When cleaning out the environment you are doing two important tasks towards keeping the animals healthy. Firstly, you will be keeping an eye on food intake, making sure that the diet is adequate and healthy and secondly, you will be making sure that there is no rotting food left lying about to attract flies and bacteria and fungi.