What You Need to Know About Tortoise Respiratory Infections

Tortoise respiratory infections often happen due to low environmental temperatures, inappropriate substrate, post hibernation complications, or mycoplasma (bacteria). Luckily, proper treatment can be offered by a vet to aid recovery. In terms of prevention, monitoring the temperature in the tortoise’s enclosure is the most important measure you can take.

Have you ever heard of a tortoise catching a cold? It’s a strange thing to imagine, but it’s possible, although it might not be described in such terms. As a result of certain environmental factors, some tortoises might end up catching a cold.

Of course, a tortoise will display different behavior compared to a human who will be sneezing into a tissue every 5 minutes, but it’s still something that all tortoise owners should be aware of.

Tortoises can develop respiratory infections that require urgent veterinary help. If not treated properly, the issue can be very dangerous for the tortoise and might make things worse. It’s essential to know what to do if you ever find yourself in this situation as a new tortoise owner.

Here you can find information on respiratory infections, why they happen, how they manifest, how to prevent them, and how to treat them. Let’s get to it!

Why Do Respiratory Infections Happen in Tortoises?

Respiratory infections in tortoises don’t just appear at random. In fact, they’re the direct result of certain conditions in the tortoise’s environment. It’s a little difficult to determine the cause of the condition once it arises, but a visit to the vet should answer your questions. Here are the most likely reasons why respiratory infections sometimes appear in tortoises.

  • Environmental Temperature

Temperature is very often the culprit when it comes to respiratory infections. If the tortoise has a vulnerable immune system to begin with, then it is more likely to develop the infection as a result of temperature shifts.

Of course you might not know your tortoise is immune compromised until they get ill, but with veterninary assistance you can address the root cause.

Temperature drops may have an effect if you leave the tortoise outside during a chill and wet summer. The weather might trigger the respiratory infection and you should take immediate action to deal with it.

However, holding the tortoise indoors doesn’t mean it will never experience respiratory symptoms. If you have for example, a fan that blows on the enclosure or a drafty door or window, and this is enough to reduce the temperature enough for long enough, the tortoise will slowly start getting sick.

Burned-out heat pads or bulbs might also lead to respiratory symptoms. Similarly, if the air is too dry, it might also cause problems.

  • Bedding

The bedding substrate you use in the tortoise’s enclosure can also lead to respiratory infections. Hay, for instance, contains different fungal spores that can be very harmful to the tortoise if inhaled (which they invariably will be).

As the spores make their way into the tortoise’s lungs it leads to respiratory infection. For this reason, hay is not a type of bedding you should consider for the pet’s enclosure.

Other substrates that become dusty as they break down, for instance compacted straw pellets, might also pose an issue. If you do choose to use them, you must make sure to replace them as soon as they get wet and disintegrate, as the resulting product becomes very dusty once it dries out.

  • Post Hibernation Illness

Many species of tortoises hibernate, and despite the benefits of this process, this is exactly what makes them more prone to developing an annoying respiratory infection.

Basically, there is a link between the nasal passages, throat, and mouth. Because of this, once the tortoise emerges from hibernation, they might get a respiratory infection, especially if there is also a case of stomatitis or “mouth rot”. Thus, offering proper care and the correct feeding protocol to your tortoise after hibernation is a must.

  • Mycoplasma

Some tortoises may have certain microbes in their nasal chambers, and one of them is Mycoplasma. Usually, Mycoplasma is not a reason to worry. The body’s immune system will keep it in check and make sure it doesn’t overreact to its presence.

However, when the environmental conditions for the tortoise are not optimal, the Mycoplasma may be able to take advantage of the tortoise being in a weaker state, and cause symptomatic disease.

Situations when this happens are when the tortoise is exposed to a sub-optimal temperatures for a prolonged period of time, or if there are dietary deficiencies.

What Are the Common Symptoms?

You may be thinking that a tortoise will show some very obvious symptoms when a respiratory infection strikes. Sadly, this is not always the case. The problem is that tortoises sometimes don’t show any symptoms at first, despite being infected, which can be problematic as it may delay you from seeking treatment. But when symtoms do appear, it will not be hard to notice that something is wrong with the tortoise and that you should schedule a visit to the vet.

Some symptoms are more common than others. At first, the infection and symptoms will manifest in the upper respiratory tract. The classic symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections are a runny nose and sometimes small bubbles at the nostrils. The discharge from the nose is usually clear. Apart from discharge and bubbles, the tortoise’s breathing may also become heavy.

If things progress and get worse, the nasal discharge will change color and consistency, becoming more yellow and getting thicker.

There may also be some discharge coming from the eyes, and the area around the eyes might show signs of swelling. An accompanying symptom is appetite and activity reduction.

At first, these will be the only symptoms and you may be forgiven for thinking it is nothing too serious. Things tend to worsen if you do nothing about it, though. If the infection spreads to the lungs too, there is a real risk of pneumonia setting in. As such, the tortoise develops a lower respiratory tract infection as a direct result of the upper respiratory tract infection.

At this point the tortoise will display some notably abnormal behavior. It will try to extend its neck a lot in an effort to clear the mucus accumulating in the lungs. It will also seem generally distressed and move its head around a lot. Furthermore, the mouth will be open most of the time because the tortoise finds it too hard to breathe through its nose.

As time goes by, the tortoise’s condition will worsen further. Activity will decrease, and the appetite will be lost. The tortoise will get weaker as it contiinues to suffer, unltimately reaching a life-threatening condition.

How Can You Treat Them?

You should not attempt to treat a respiratory infection at home. The right course of action is take the tortoise to a veterinarian, where a proper diagnosis will be given, and the correct treatment administered.

The vet will be able to perform several tests in order to find the cause behind the issue. This will help establish the right way to treat the infection. For example, if there’s a bacterial infection, antibiotics will be used. In the case of viral or fungal infection, anti-viral and anti-fungal drugs will be used respectively.

You should be aware that it’s also possible that on top of an initial antibiotic injection given by the vet, you may have to administer a course of nasal drops once you return home. As part of this task, you should make sure to wipe away any nasal discharge, so the nostrils don’t become blocked.

In addition to providing treatment, you may need to make some changes in the tortoise’s environment, if the cause is deemed to be environmental. For example, raising the temperature in the tortoise’s enclosure is one simple yet effective change you can make, because it will help the tortoise’s body fight the infection.

How to Prevent Respiratory Infections

Preventing respiratory infections is important if you don’t want to make your tortoise suffer, or even put it at risk of death.

Begin by checking the tortoise’s enclosure to see if there are any cold spots. If the basking area is too cold, then you should fix this, so the tortoise may have sufficient warmth. Monitor the temperature in the enclosure regularly so it doesn’t get too cold.

Also, to reiterate the earlier point, never use hay as bedding for the tortoise. If you do so, the reptile might inhale the fungal spores.

Are There Any Risk Factors?

Certain breeds are more prone to getting respiratory infections than others. For example, Hermann’s tortoises, Leopard tortoises, Mediterranean spur-thighed tortoises and American gopher tortoises are species that are more likely to face with such an infection. This is largely because, as smaller species, they are often kept in the stuffy confines of an indoor enclosure.

If the immune system of the tortoise is not the best, it can also be a potential risk factor, as the tortoise is more likely to have an infection compared to a tortoise with good immunity. Whilst knowing that your tortoise is immune compromised isn’t always obvious, if they have been ill previously, or are generally ‘sickly’ that can be a good reason to take extra precautions.

Prognosis Following Treatment

It might take the tortoise a few days to feel better, so you should notice a gradual improvement. In several weeks, they should be completely back to normal. However, despite being treated, the bacterium might not be fully eliminated.

As such, there are chances of the infection coming back in the future, which means treatment might be needed at a later date. In particular, if it comes into contact with other tortoises, the risk of cross infection will be introduced.

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