Mouth Rot in Turtles and Tortoises


Mouth rot is a very common bacterial infection in tortoises and turtles and can quite easily be eradicated if caught early. It is fairly easy to diagnose as well, so anyone keeping a close eye on their pet should have no trouble keeping on top of this particular problem. If it does get out of hand, however, for example during hibernation, it can become quite serious as it can easily lead to loss of mouth tissue and bone, leading to problems with eating and all that that can entail. Other complications include respiratory tract infections which can be quite difficult to resolve. It is better to be constantly vigilant and to seek veterinary advice as soon as the tell-tale signs are noticed.

How to spot necrotic stomatitis

If caught early, treatment is so easy that it would be a shame to miss the opportunity by not recognising the warning signs. The first thing to notice is that your turtle or tortoise will be off its food. This is the first sign of many different conditions, so any anorexia in any animal should be taken seriously. In the case of mouth rot, though, the animal will probably be hungry but will be unwilling to eat because of the pain or discomfort in the mouth. There will probably be a degree of drooling, not necessary easy to spot in the aquatic turtle, but even so this is something to watch out for. It might be more comfortable for the animal with mouth rot to rest with its mouth open – again, this is a sign of several conditions, including pneumonia and so should be investigated quickly. If the infection has got a hold, there will be a white cheesy looking substance in the mouth, which rubs off but leaves sore-looking tissue behind. There may also be petechiae, which are small broken blood vessels under the skin. Whatever stage you catch mouth rot, you must always speak to your vet, who will recommend treatment.

Causes of mouth rot in turtles and tortoises

Mouth rot is a bacterial infection, but to get a foothold, there has to be a contributing factor, such as stress or injury. The injury does not have to be big; if a tortoise grazes free outside, it might be something as relatively minor as an accidental mouthful of thistle – a thorn puncturing the mouth can then let the bacteria in. If the animal is also stressed by a move or introduction of new animals to the habitat, the infection will quickly accelerate to mouth rot. Another common reason for a tortoise or turtle developing mouth rot is a poorly aligned jaw. This can happen for a number of reasons, including poor early nutrition causing uneven growth or clumsy trimming of beaks. Injuries can also result in poor jaw alignment and the reason that mouth rot can develop is that food can gather in part of the mouth and attract bacteria or an overused side of the mouth can become sore and infected. If you notice poor jaw position, you will need to be even more careful to watch out for mouth rot.

Mouth rot treatments

Depending on the severity, tortoises and turtles with mouth rot can be treated successfully at home, but the advice of the vet must be sought at the outset. Swabbing with a mild antiseptic wash is often enough, along with careful feeding and keeping the habitat clean and preferably isolating the animal. This has to be done twice a day and it is a good idea to watch the vet do it the first time, as a clumsy treatment regime will stress the animal more, not helping with the ultimate healing. Sometimes a vet will suggest that you also treat your turtle or tortoise with an antibiotic cream on the site of the problem or may even give an injection of antibiotic to start the treatment going.

Keeping the mouth clean is obviously very important, so it is usually easier to move the turtle or tortoise to a very plain and scrupulously clean environment where it will in any case be easier to monitor its progress. In very bad cases where there is a significant discharge and bone involvement, surgery may be necessary. In these advanced cases, there is not a guarantee of recovery and the vet may recommend euthanasia.

Prevention is always best

Mouth rot is such an easy problem to treat in its early stages that it is a shame that the situation ever gets so bad that the animal dies of it, and yet it does happen. Constant vigilance and getting to know your animal well is the best prevention of all, and a clean habitat will also mean that the problem is minimised. When a turtle or tortoise is off its food, the mouth health should always be checked as a matter of course and whilst it may be sometimes difficult to tell if a chelonian is stressed or depressed, if you know your animal, then any change in behaviour will tell you something. When cleaning the habitat, make it part of your routine to check for anything which might injure the animal. This will not only help prevent mouth rot, but other problems such as shell rot, which can be caused by something as simple as a snag from a splinter scratching the shell.

When feeding your turtle or tortoise, make sure that there is nothing in the food which can injure the mouth and it is particularly important to check further if your pet is clearly hungry and yet is not tackling food enthusiastically. Mouth rot is very painful and even the hungriest animal will not eat when suffering from the condition. With care, your turtle or tortoise will never have to suffer this painful and possibly serious problem.


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