6 Common Health Issues in Pet Turtles and How to Prevent Them

vet treating turtle

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Reportedly, close to 2 million houses in the USA have a pet turtle. On the one side, I am thrilled. However, the other side is worried whether all these new turtle keepers have a clear understanding of turtle’s health issues. 

Metabolic bone disease is the leading cause of weakness in young turtles. A swollen eye and uneven skin are often the result of vitamin-A deficiency.

They say that it’s all fun having a pet until it gets sick because you don’t notice the signs. To ensure you never end up on the guilt trip, here’s a list of health issues turtles usually face and how to prevent them.

Key Takeaways

  • Both hypovitaminosis-A & aural abscess have one thing in common- swollen eye.
  • Vitamin-A deficiency is the main nutrient responsible for smooth skin, urination, and eyesight.
  • Poor eyesight due to diseases can push a turtle to die; as they can’t locate their food in the tank.
  • Unlike land turtles, semi-aquatic & aquatic turtles require enough humidity in the tank as well.

6 Health Issues Your Pet Turtle Might Suffer From

1. Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD)

There are many types of bone diseases. But the most common one is Nutritional Secondary Hyperparathyroidism. We will basically talk about this specific type of MBD. 

It weakens the turtle’s bones and causes an unsmooth shell growth. You will notice your turtle struggling to move and have fun like before. They will easily fracture their bones from minor accidents. All of this indicates that your turtle’s bones are not as strong as they should have been.

Symptoms To Look For

  • Outward laziness
  • Fractures
  • Jerking movement
  • Deformed beak
  • Crooked nails
  • Swollen body parts

Why Does It Happen?

As soon as your turtle is diagnosed with MBD, the doctor will want to know your pet’s care guide. It’s to understand whether you are negligent or not. 

In most MBD cases, the doctor announces “neglect” as the root cause. However, in my opinion, lack of knowledge is another big cause.

Lack Of Calcium

Since it’s a bone disease, calcium will be involved for sure. As a result of not having enough calcium in food, the turtles can suffer from weak bones or MBD. 

Lack Of Vitamin D3

What if you provide calcium-rich pellets? Then, it must be a lack of basking time.

If the turtle doesn’t spend enough time under the sun or a UV-A+ UV-B light, it will not have enough vitamin D3 in its body.

This is the vitamin that controls the calcium in your turtle. So, a lack of vitamin D3 can indirectly lead to a calcium deficit.

Low Temperature In The Basking Dock

A perfectly lit basking dock is a must for a turtle’s growth. But many people forget about the heating feature. A basking light should produce enough heat as well. Otherwise, the turtle will not be able to fight all the bacteria & algae living on its shell. Slowly, these microbes break down the turtle’s bone structure and cause MBD.

How To Prevent Metabolic Bone Disease

If you are careful with your turtle’s tank set-up and dietary needs, there’s a high chance the turtle will never get MBD. 

The diet should contain enough calcium from plants as turtles don’t digest animal-based protein very well. If you offer pellets, check the ingredients first. Only buy commercial-grade pellets for your turtle.

The next thing you can look out for is a warm basking area (90 to 100 Fahrenheit). That’s all it takes (literally) to keep the bone disease miles away.

2. Pyramid Growth Syndrome

Pyramidal growth syndrome, or PGS, is not very common in aquatic turtles. But semi-aquatic turtles (red-eared sliders) and tortoises can be a victims of this dangerous disease.

Once affected, the turtle’s scutes start growing upwards. If you are confused, scutes are the uniquely shaped individual bones that connect together to create the carapace. A healthy turtle is supposed to have a silky smooth shell.

But PGS can cause the scutes to grow unevenly in a vertical direction.

So, your turtle ends up having a bumpy shell. It looks like multiple small pyramids are standing together.

Symptoms To Look For

Uneven shell growth.

That’s the only sign you will see when your turtle is “pyramiding.”

Why Does It Happen?

Too Much Protein

Adult turtles can live off leafy vegetables for years. If you are giving your pet cooked meat in every meal, you have to stop now. Otherwise, the excess or unwanted protein will trigger the shell pyramiding.

Dehydration

Exotic turtles that usually stay in tropical locations require humidity in their habitats. A tank filled with water and a dry basking spot is not enough.

If the place you live in has less moisture in the air for the most part of the year, you need a humidifier. If you don’t use one, there’s a chance of triggering shell pyramiding.

Less Basking Time

Lack of calcium is another big reason. And, it’s a mystery to many turtle keepers why their turtle is pyramiding after eating lots of calcium-rich green daily.

You might be giving them calcium, but they must have the ability to absorb calcium for these greens and supplements.

If you keep your turtle in a tank without access to sunlight, the turtle will fail to use the calcium in its food.

How To Prevent Pyramidal Growth Syndrome

I called this disease dangerous because the shell structure can’t be cured. You can’t perform surgery or anything else to get the original shell structure back.

As you know, turtle shells are literally rib bones. Once it is formed in a certain way, it is going to stay like this forever. 

That’s why learning the preventive measure is even more important to avoid PGS altogether. 

Avoid Excess Protein

The first thing to ensure is that you are not adding too much protein-rich food to the meal. Instead of providing meat, worms, and insects every other day, rely on commercial-grade pellets. Adult turtles can eat just pellets and veggies every day for the rest of their lives.

They might ask for a little treat (crickets, spiders, beetles) every now & then. But don’t overdo it. 

Provide Sufficient Calcium

Next, the diet must contain at least some amount of calcium in it. Some owners choose to provide green leaves as a source of calcium, while some rely on calcium powders. Both work well. But remember not to overfeed calcium. 

Ensure UV-B Light

Thirdly, you have to create a comfortable and inviting basking area. Installing a UV-B light is the best way to do so. It will help synthesize vitamin D3 and increase the absorption of calcium from food. 

In case your turtle inherits the disease through genes, there’s nothing more to do.

3. Gastro-Intestinal Parasite

It’s a common health condition almost every turtle faces. By parasites, I mean the internal ones living off your immune system. Roundworms and tapeworms are the most common kinds of parasites found in a turtle’s intestine.

Even though every turtle lives with both external (mites & ticks) and internal parasites, there’s a limit. Once the parasites use all the nutrition in the host’s body to nourish their own, the former gets sick.

That’s what happens with turtles, too. Usually, when any report on a turtle’s gastro-intestinal parasite is reported, the situation gets out of hand. 

You can spot blood on its waste, signs of anorexia, and severe weight loss. These are concerning symptoms, to be honest.

Luckily, if you get your pet checked by a doctor frequently, they can identify the parasite attack at an early stage.

Symptoms To Look For

  • Severe weight loss
  • Diarrhea
  • Anorexia
  • Lethargic 

Why Does It Happen?

Dirty Water

Dirty or polluted water is the powerhouse for bacteria and parasites. It strengthens any existing parasite stuck in the tank. 

I think you already know where all the dirt comes from. Yes, it’s the half-eaten vegetables or pellets, as well as turtle poop. All of these elements contain nitrate, ammonia, and a hefty amount of microbes.

So, a delay in cleaning can pollute the whole tank.

Turtle at veterinarian
Cold & Unpleasant Tank

Staying in dirty water is unpleasant. But if it’s cold, your turtle is seriously in danger. A cold, gloomy environment promotes algae growth in turtle shells. It’s very possible that a few microorganisms enter the turtle’s mouth and then hide in the intestine.

How To Prevent Gastro-Intestinal Parasite

We can’t get rid of these parasites fully. There are microbiological reasons why they are needed inside the intestines. But that discussion is for another day.

Remember, your goal is to control the fast growth of parasites inside the turtle.

For that, the first thing you will need is to change your tank maintenance routine. Make sure you do at least 30% water change every week. 

But safe water in a dirty tank is of no use. Run a soft brush across the entire tank during every water change. Also, use a separate feeding basket to avoid any leftover food floating inside the tank. 

holding a box turtle
Owner: Seth Michael

4. Respiratory Infection

Respiratory Infection, or RI, is basically what we know as pneumonia. It is not a life-threatening disease for turtles. But it surely interrupts their happy life. 

You will notice the turtle breathing through the mouth, having watery eyes, a runny nose, etc. 

Symptoms To Look For

  • Runny nose
  • Swollen eyes
  • Watery eyes
  • No appetite for food
  • Breathing heavily
  • Mouth breathing

Why Does It Happen?

Doctors mainly suspect the low temperature in the tank for pneumonia. If the semi-aquatic turtle is always in contact with water, it can catch pneumonia. Semi-aquatic turtles need a warm basking area with lots of sunlight.

It again increases their body temperature after swimming in water. The after-swimming heat session might be missing in your turtle’s case. 

Another culprit is the water heater. Is it actually keeping your tank warm? Sometimes, heaters stop working, and the poor reptile has to stay in cold water for a long time.

That’s another reason for catching pneumonia.

Veterinarian examining cute turtle in clinic

How To Prevent Respiratory Infection

Install A Halogen Heat Bulb

Halogen bulbs produce heat, unlike regular aquarium lights. So, pick a halogen UV-B light to keep the basking area slightly warmer.

UV-B lights stimulate the turtle’s body to absorb vitamin D3. But the basking light should have both UV-B & UV-A (full spectrum UV light). So, check whether your bulb is full spectrum or not.

Provide A Completely Dry Basking Dock

Are you using a floating basking dock? Even though it’s cheap, it can be lightweight and less sturdy. If your turtle is on the heavier end, it can go down in the water.

As a result, your turtle has to stay in contact with water 24/7. To prevent pneumonia, you must ensure a completely dry basking box a little far from the tank. 

Buy A High-Capacity Heater

Not just the basking log; the water should be within 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Buy a high-quality heater that can support your tank size.

It is even more important if your area’s weather is cold most of the time. You don’t want your turtle to freeze due to a technical problem in the heater.

The rule of thumb is assigning at least 5W for every gallon. So, buy a 100W heater if your tank is 20 gallons.

5. Vitamin-A Deficiency

Another turtle disease linked to nutrition is vitamin A deficiency. I guess the name of the disease is pretty self-explanatory. The disease occurs when there’s a lack of vitamin A in your turtle’s body.

Turtles need enough vitamin A for rejuvenated skin, fully functioning mucous and urination tubes, and, most importantly, their eyesight.

Turtles depend 100% on their eyes to navigate through the tank and find food. So, poor eyesight makes it difficult for them to locate food. If you tend to offer live fish to the turtle for a hunting experience, there’s a chance your turtle goes to sleep hungry.

Symptoms To Look For

  • Swollen eyelids.
  • Poor eyesight.
  • Unhealthy weight loss.
  • Infection in eustachian tube.
  • Breathing problem.

Why Does It Happen?

The only reason it happens is that they are offering food without doing any research. You should plan your turtle’s diet so that it has enough vitamin-A-rich food. 

Wrong Pellets

Some turtle keepers feed fish pellets to these poor reptiles. Since the animal eats it, the owners don’t worry anymore. However, fish pellets don’t have the nutrition (vitamin A) that your turtle needs.

how to treat respiratory infection in turtles at home
Low-Quality Turtle Pellets

If you are giving turtle pellets to your pet, there’s a possibility the pellets are low-grade. That means the brand might not be putting enough nutrients/vitamins into the food. 

Iceberg Lettuce 

That might be another big reason if you habitually offer only iceberg lettuce as a treat. Even though it is a veggie, it hardly has any nutrients at all. It’s alright if you offer a variety of other vegetables as well. But if iceberg lettuce is the only source of fiber your turtle gets, that’s a huge problem.

Only Meat Diet

Turtles don’t need to eat meat after a certain age. But some keepers still insist on offering protein-rich food every day. It does more harm than good. Hypovitaminosis-A is just an example of that.

How To Prevent Hypovitaminosis-A

You should run to the doctor when you see a swollen eye. But another disease called aural abscess also shows signs like swelling in the eye.

But if you check, both eyelids of the turtles look swollen with red & runny eyes. The turtle will frequently touch its eyes because of the irritation. That’s a symptom of vitamin A deficiency. 

If it were due to an abscess, you would see one of its eyes shut completely due to the swelling. 

Now that you know how to initiate a diagnosis, let’s talk about preventive steps. Well, it’s simple. You have to change your turtle’s diet. Make sure you are adding lots of fresh veggies enriched in beta-carotene.

How do you identify that?

Beta-carotene causes the vegetable to look colorful (other than green). So, squash, dandelions, oranges, papaya, sweet potato, strawberries, etc are wonderful sources.

6. Ear/Aural Abscess

Turtles can suffer from abscesses as well. An ear or aural abscess is nothing but a lump of Pus inside the ear cavity. Even though you don’t see the ear from the outside, turtles do have ear canals on both sides of their mouth.

The ears and mouth are connected through an eustachian tube. That’s where the abscess usually takes place.

The texture of the Pus is somewhat firm, unlike the runny liquids we see in other mammals. Such texture doesn’t allow the Pus to run back to the mouth. You will see your turtle’s head swelling up oddly. 

Symptoms To Look For

  • The swelling will look uneven or asymmetric.
  • Either of the eyes might become red, runny, or swollen.
  • Turtle doesn’t eat.
  • The structure of the turtle’s head changes.
  • Turtle can’t lift head properly due to extra weight.

The number one and probably the most prominent symptom is the shape of your turtle’s head. If you interact with your turtle on a daily basis, you will definitely notice the abscess as it grows.

If only one ear canal has it, the head will swell up from one side. And if both canals have it, then it will be extremely hard for the turtle to open its mouth to eat. 

Why Does It Happen?

Bacterial Infection

As soon as you take your turtle to the vet’s clinic, the doctor will question you about its habitat. For example, is the water clean? How often do you change the water? Where do you feed it? What kind of decorations does the tank have?

It’s because one of the main reasons your turtle has abscesses is a bacterial infection. Such infections can happen due to a dirty tank (majority of cases), dirty water, sharp rocks, etc.

Yes, if the turtle ever gets hurt in the mouth through any sharp object, bacterial infection can spread inside the mouth to ear canals.

If turtle poop or leftover food is not cleaned timely, it can produce bacteria. The microbes get inside turtle’s mouths while turtles drink water and cause infection. 

Stress

Another big factor is stress level. High levels of stress or trauma often cause aural abscesses. Stress can occur due to unhealthy water conditions, wrong temperature, or lack of food.

Vitamin-A Deficiency

Last but not least, we have vitamin A deficiency. Having an aural abscess is another symptom of hypovitaminosis-A. If you are confident about your tank’s condition, it must be lack of essential vitamins and minerals.

How To Prevent Abscesses

There’s no other way to cure the abscess except surgery. Take your turtle to a professional vet surgeon ASAP.

Now, let’s talk about the preventive measures. 

  • The most effective step is always to keep the tank clean. Turtles are naturally messy creatures. That’s why you have to be more vigilant as their caretaker. Always use a siphon pipe to remove debris from the tank.
  • Change the water every 2-3 weeks. Also, install a powerful filter to keep the water crystal clear.
  • Secondly, make sure the tank doesn’t have obstacles that can hurt the turtle. Sometimes, we put wooden logs or rocks inside the tank without properly inspecting it. If you think the edges can hurt your turtle, polish it out.
  • Finally, always ensure an ideal level of humidity, temperature, and food quality. 

Some Other Health Issues Every Turtle Keeper Should Be Aware Of

Apart from these medical conditions, there are health issues like obesity, overgrown beaks, and excess salmonella. These can be a big issue for a group of turtle keepers.

An obese turtle has a hard time completing day-to-day activities. It only causes the weight to go up. The main culprit is food filled with fat (no doubt).

Plus, staying in a small tank can trigger excessive weight gain. I would recommend getting a 40-gallon tank, at least if your turtle is 4 inches long.

For an overgrown beak, maintain a calcium-rich diet. Give your turtle food like cattlebone. It helps to file down the excess growth in the beak as the turtle chews it.

Before You Leave!

As you can see, the majority of this disease can be prevented by establishing a habitat designed to fulfill every need of a turtle. To make sure your turtle doesn’t stay behind in growth, you have to think about filters to automatic feeders. Check out this article to get the full list of accessories for your turtle tank. 

Article Link: 18 Must have Accessories For A Perfect Turtle Tank.

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About Author

Muntaseer Rahman started keeping pet turtles back in 2013. He also owns the largest Turtle & Tortoise Facebook community in Bangladesh. These days he is mostly active on Facebook.

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