Similarly to a person catching a cold or getting pneumonia, turtles and tortoises are prone to developing respiratory infections. While our pet turtles don't have play dates with other turtles that are sick, they are often subjected to an environment that may cause them to get sick.
How Does a Turtle or Tortoise Catch a Cold?
One of the most common reasons a turtle or tortoise gets a respiratory infection is due to its environment being too cold. Cold temperatures in a turtle enclosure are often due to:
- Not monitoring temperatures in the enclosure
- Inadequate lighting to achieve high temperatures
- A burned-out heat bulb or pad
- A drafty window or door
- A fan blowing on the enclosure
- An unusually cold evening or drastic change in temperature
Transporting your turtle when it's cold outside can also cause it to get a chill and fall ill as well as shared air space with a sick turtle or tortoise. Your turtle may contract the same infection as the sick turtle if it is contagious so any sick turtle should always be kept in quarantine to avoid spreading germs.
Signs to Lookout For
The most obvious signs of respiratory infection in a turtle or tortoise are difficulty breathing (outstretched head and gulping air), a decrease in energy, a lack of appetite, swimming lopsided, unable to dive, open mouth breathing, whistling while breathing, and drainage or bubbles coming from the mouth, eyes, or nostrils.
How Serious Is It?
A cold or respiratory infection can turn into pneumonia and be life-threatening to your turtle. If your turtle goes for more than a few days (species and age-dependent) without being interested in food and/or is showing any signs of having a respiratory infection, it should not be ignored.
First and foremost, check the temperatures in your turtle’s enclosure both during the day and at night. If it is a large enclosure, also be sure to check multiple areas of it for cold spots. More often than not, you will find that the basking area isn't warm enough for your turtle or it is getting too cold in the enclosure at night. Think back to any changes your turtle may have experienced and ask yourself these questions:
- Has your turtle traveled anywhere (i.e. to the vet, new house, etc.)?
- Did you move the cage?
- Did the outside temperature drastically change?
- Did the power recently go out?
Second, correct the problems if you find them. If any light bulbs have blown or the air temperature just isn't what it should be inside your turtle’s enclosure, make sure you warm your turtle up. Sometimes, just increasing the temperature in the enclosure will make your turtle feel better until it can be seen by a vet. Increasing the humidity is also helpful in loosening up any debris in your turtle's respiratory tract, just like a humidifier or vaporizer helps you when you have a cold. Be sure to avoid using any human medications for your turtle or tortoise unless you are directed to do so by your veterinarian.
Finally, schedule an appointment with your exotics vet since you will most likely need turtle-safe medications to battle an infection. Cytology of any discharge that is seen may be performed to look for an infection, X-rays may be recommended to see if there are any visible changes to the heart or lungs to explain any breathing difficulties, a culture of the discharge may be recommended, and other diagnostic tests may also be discussed. Depending on the severity of the infection, your vet may want to run these and other tests or they may feel comfortable trying antibiotics first.
You should always monitor the temperatures of your turtle's enclosure—especially with reputable products like a temperature gun. Be sure to check a variety of spots that your turtle or tortoise can get to in the enclosure at different times during the day since they may vary. You may find that at night it gets too cold when the basking light turns off or there is a cool spot in the back of the enclosure because of a draft—fix this with a mercury vapor bulb that emits no light. Correct any issues you find in the enclosure and be sure to keep your turtle warm to decrease the likelihood of it catching a cold.
Agha M. et al. Mass mortality of eastern box turtles with upper respiratory disease following atypical cold weather. Dis Aquat Organ. vol. 124, no, 2, pp. 91-100, 2017. doi:10.3354/dao03122
Mycoplasma in Reptiles. Veterinary Information Network.
Common Diseases of Aquatic Turtles. VCA Animal Hospitals.
Bacterial Diseases of Reptiles. Merck Veterinary Manual.