Infections of either the upper or lower respiratory tract in a turtle or a tortoise are potentially very serious and can kill in a matter of hours. Chelonians have no diaphragm or any cilia in their lungs as mammals do and so can’t cough properly to relieve the build up of mucus in their lungs. The cilia in mammalian lungs move any debris out from the air sacs and up into the bronchus to be removed by the cough reflex. A turtle or tortoise, being unable to do this, can drown in its own mucus very quickly and in these sudden onset cases, there is little to be done. But other respiratory tract infections can be treated and when spotted early are not too serious.
Upper and lower respiratory tract infection
An upper respiratory tract infection is often referred to as RND – runny nose disease and this is, like in humans and many other animals, the first sign. The eyes may also be red and runny and the animal will be generally under the weather. Just think back to when you had a cold last and if you see the symptoms in your turtle or tortoise, then you can be pretty sure they have an URTI (upper respiratory tract infection). Symptoms of an LRTI (lower respiratory tract infection) are similar, but with some additional signs. Turtles may be seen hanging in the water rather than swimming around. If they do swim, they will probably swim awkwardly, round in circles or just generally lopsided. This is because they have fluid in their lungs and their balance in the water has been affected. Tortoises and turtles will both present with frothy mucus in their mouths or noses and will gurgle and pant when they breathe. It is vital to get help from the vet as quickly as you possibly can, because the animal can die very quickly if the pneumonia sets in. Sometimes sneezing, coughing and gasping can be caused by an allergy to bedding or food, but this will not come on suddenly as the LRTI symptoms do.
Preventing respiratory tract infections
Chelonians are very susceptible to draughts and being too cold can affect them quite severely. If you see signs of an URTI in your turtle or tortoise, raising the temperature a little in their habitat can often nip the problem in the bud. Turtles need water at a very precise temperature in captivity and it is very important to monitor this accurately, as even a few degrees too cool can be very bad for the animal’s overall health. Basking temperature also needs to be accurate and if the turtle is kept too cool not only will it be sluggish but it will also become stressed and off its food, leaving it immune compromised and prone to infection. The choice of bedding needs careful thought too. If it is dusty, the tortoise’s nostrils will bung up with dust and this will give a splendid breeding ground to any number of bacteria. The warm and damp in the head spaces of the chelonian will soon have a very flourishing colony of bugs. Feeding a healthy diet suitable for the species is also important as vitamin C is as important to reptiles as it is to other animals in fighting off infections of the URTI causing organisms.
Depending on the severity of the infection and whether it is primarily a ‘head cold’ or on the lungs, treatment will vary. Wherever the infection is seated, if it is severe then the vet will almost certainly give a loading dose of antibiotic. If this does not clear the infection up quickly then swabs will be taken to make sure that the antibiotic given is the right one and usually it is possible to treat the infection successfully.
If the breathing problems are found to be caused by an environmental issue, such as an allergy, it is possible to give local treatment to hasten the animal’s recovery. This will entail flushing out the nostrils using warmed saline solution. Antibiotic can be added at this point as well, to make doubly sure. If the sneezing and wheezing is caused by something like grass seeds or inhaled food, this will soon alleviate the symptoms. The tortoise has to be turned on its back to achieve this and it is not madly keen on the procedure, so giving the right food and bedding in the first place is a much better course of action than going through this procedure at least twice a day until it is better.
Like people, chelonians do not like getting colds. Keeping them at the right temperature and in the right bedding are simple and obvious preventative measures but there are others which might not immediately spring to mind. If as an owner you have more than one poorly turtle or tortoise it may seem the best course is to isolate them from their companions but to house them all together. This is not at all a good idea, as they may never manage to shrug off the infection in this way. Just because they all have runny noses does not guarantee that they all have the same infection and if they have come from different sources before they lived with you, they may well be infected with a selection of infectious agents. Worse still, some may not have an infection at all, but have simply inhaled a seed or some grit. So the best thing is to isolate sick animals not just from the rest of the group, but also from each other. This will seem tedious, but will pay off in the end.