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Major Illnesses and Injuries

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The most severe types of illnesses, diseases and injuries are listed in this section. It is important for you to quickly determine if these symptoms are present and what the immediate and long term care options are. These conditions will require the immediate services of a qualified herpetological veterinarian. Delaying proper treatment will only make recovery difficult if not impossible and prolong any discomfort your turtle may be experiencing.


If your turtle has drowned, it may be unconscious and still alive. Do not turn your RES upside down because that may cause whatever remaining oxygen to escape. Do not attempt to force your RES to move or place it back into the in water.

The following information is from:

First Aid for Drowned Turtle
Copyright by Valerie Haecky

This document may be freely distributed for non-profit use, provided this notice is included.

The following information is compiled from a variety of articles in various newsletters. I have tried this myself, too.

Both water turtles and box turtles can drown. Even a drowned turtle that looks quite dead might just be waiting for you to help it get its breath back. Remember that turtles can be without oxygen for a long time, especially in cool water, before the damage is irreversible.

First and foremost: NEVER TURN THE TURTLE/TORTOISE ON ITS BACK. Turning it on his back might remove the little airspace still left in the lungs.

  1. Grasp the turtle's head behind the ears (base of skull) and extend the neck completely.
  2. Turn it head-down/tail up and open its mouth. Usually, some water will flow or drip out at this point. Wait until the dripping stops.
  3. Place the turtle (belly down) on a flat surface with its neck extended. Stand in front of the turtle.
  4. Straighten his front legs and pull them straight toward you as far as they will go.
  5. Keeping the legs straight, push them in as far as they will go. Do not let the legs bend at the elbows.
  6. Continue pulling and pushing until water stops coming out.

Now it's time to take your turtle to the veterinarian. The veterinarian will insert a tube and start providing the turtle with pure oxygen. He may give a respiratory stimulant and a drug that will help the turtle excrete the water accumulated in its tissue. After this, the turtle will probably regain consciousness and start moving. Since some turtles develop pneumonia after drowning, the veterinarian will most likely recommend a course of antibiotics.

A note on mouth-to-mouth (or straw to mouth) breathing. I've seen it described in one place. I don't know whether it works, and I don't know whether the risk of blowing in too hard and damaging the lungs is worth it. The above instructions are proven to work in many cases.

A note on baby turtles: The smaller the turtle, the harder it is to help the animal, simply because of its small size.

Metabolic Bone Disease / Soft Shell

Metabolic bone disease (MBD), also known as soft shell syndrome, should be of serious concern to new turtle keepers and for those with young RES. It is a serious but preventable disease brought on by deficiencies of calcium and/or vitamin D3. Early cases are treatable but advanced cases may be too difficult to overcome. It is possible that MBD may have incurred other diseases due to poor diet and conditions.

Calcium is an essential mineral throughout the body and in the bloodstream. It is primarily responsible for the hardness and strength of the shell and bones. A lack of calcium in the blood is hypocalcaemia, which causes the body to take calcium from the bone structure, which in turn greatly weakens it. Though it is normal for calcium to be taken from the bones, it does need to be replenished. A young RES grows at a fast rate and will require a good amount of calcium to compensate for this growth. A gravid female should also receive additional calcium.

Ideally, a RES will get calcium through a proper diet of pellets and certain vegetables that contain a usable amount of calcium. A supplement like cuttlebone can also be offered for additional dietary calcium. Vegetables that contain oxalic acid, like spinach, actually block the absorption of calcium and should never be fed to a RES. Foods and treats that contain more phosphorus than calcium should be used rarely or avoided.
Note: The absorption of calcium is dependent on vitamin D3, which is usually obtained through metabolized UVB rays but can also come from a supplement. Direct, unobstructed sunlight is the best source of UVB rays for your turtle.
If these conditions continue, the bones and shell would eventually soften. This critical situation may be revealed where the shell may be soft in certain areas or all around and may appear deformed. Areas of white discoloring may develop on the shell and shell rot may take hold. The RES may refuse to eat or appear weak and lethargic. Tremors and reflex problems can also be symptoms. The calcium in the diet must be quickly corrected and, if necessary, a vet can inject calcium into the turtle. Overall, calcium and vitamin D3 are easy and inexpensive to provide. There is no justifiable reason for it not to be.
Note: Hatchlings do have slightly soft shells that are pliable. While this is normal, the shells should gradually harden within a few months.

Respiratory Infections (RI)
Information clipped from Health / Respiratory Infections

Respiratory infections (RI) are common and deadly illnesses that affect many captive turtles. It is a contagious illness that can spread to other turtles and often requires medical attention. Improper basking and water temperatures as well as exposure to drafts and breezes greatly increase the chances of contracting RI. There are varying degrees of RI, including pneumonia, and the symptoms may also differ.

The most obvious symptom that can signal RI is if a RES is listing. Listing refers to swimming in an irregular manner, such as swimming in circles, unevenly or lopsided and even swimming upside down. Listing is caused by fluid in the lungs; more specifically, if fluid exists in one lung or there is more fluid in one lung than the other. Your RES requires immediate veterinary assistance if they exhibit this symptom. They may have RI but not this symptom. The sooner that they are examined, the better the chance they can recover. They would likely be administered Baytril or another anti-infective. A vitamin injection, antibiotics and an x-ray may also be used or suggested.

There are other possible symptoms that can signal RI, especially if they occur frequently. These may include breathing difficulties, coughing, sneezing, open mouth, yawning, wheezing, lethargy, loss of appetite, mucus from the nose (runny) or mouth and bubbling at the nose and mouth. If your RES exhibits any of these symptoms, then raising temperatures, quarantine and a water change would be the immediate actions to take. Ambient air temperature and water temperature should be raised 10 degrees F. Eliminate any drafts and cold air around the tank. Pneumonia may develop which in many cases is fatal. If your RES continues to exhibit a symptom or develops more, then consult with a qualified vet immediately.


Septicemia is a condition where there is a bacterial presence in the blood. It is essentially blood poisoning, a serious and life-threatening infection that requires immediate emergency care. The immune system responds to the infection with systemic inflammation. This can negatively impact the circulatory system and cause multiple organ dysfunctions. Septicemia affects the entire body and is deadly in any creature that has it. Only qualified immediate medical care can assist this condition.

Previous illness, infection, injury or improper habitat may be an indirect cause of septicemia. It is possible for egg-bound females to develop it and any of those former conditions may have been a contributing factor, especially if they were prolonged. Symptoms that may be present are pinkish or reddish coloring on skin or shell (in or between the scutes, plastron, or carapace - any possible appearance that resembles bleeding into the skin), lesions, sores, lethargy, withdrawn behavior, unresponsiveness, swelling (flesh, eyes, etc.), and lack of urine.

Blood tests may be used to determine if there is blood poisoning and measure the degree of severity. I cannot stress the importance of getting immediate and experienced medical care.

Septicemic Cutaneous Ulcerative Disease (SCUD) / Shell Rot

Shell ulceration can form when there is an injury to the shell in which the damaged area becomes infected. The initial injury could be minor and not easily noticeable or could be very obvious. It may have occurred in the form of an abrasion, scratch or even a burn. If left untreated or improperly cared for, this lesion could be penetrated and lead to a number of diseases such as fungal and bacterial infections and septicemia.

Poor habitat conditions greatly encourage SCUD development. There is no limit to what this can lead to, and an immediate vet visit should be scheduled. The areas infected are discolored, usually whitish and may be accompanied by exposed tissue, a localized softening of shell, a strong odor and the appearance of liquids such as blood or pus. A course of antibiotics will be required and the shell might need to be repaired and the infected tissue removed. Shell injuries and infections can take a great deal of time to heal properly.

Additional Article
Why see a reptile vet? - turtlepuddle.org/health/shellrot.html


If your turtle suffers any sudden trauma such as a fall, drop or animal attack, it will need to be quickly examined to measure the extent of any injuries. There may be a cracked shell, broken bones or cuts. If it is in shock or unconscious, do not force your RES to move or back into the water. Stop any bleeding and keep the area clean to prevent infection. Minor cuts can be treated with Nolvasan cream or Neosporin and dry dock the turtle after applying the medication. If any limbs are sensitive, you can suspect that it may be a broken bone. If there is any bleeding around the shell, then you should take your turtle for a vet to examine the extent of the damage.

If another animal, such as a dog or raccoon has bitten your turtle then it must be well cleaned, separated and quarantined from other turtles. If the turtle sustained any injuries, then you should take him to a vet for inspection and possibly antibiotic treatment.

Additional Article
What to do in case of a MINOR shell break - redearslider/forum/viewtopic.php?t=4519
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This page updated: 2012/03/25 Copyright © 2005-2011 Red Ear Slider. All rights reserved.