Respiratory Infections in Turtles and Tortoises

Edgar - Eastern Three-toed Box Turtle
Edgar - Eastern Three-toed Box Turtle. Rebecca Speakes

Turtles and tortoises are prone to getting respiratory infections or as we humans like to call it, catching a cold. Our pet turtles don't have play dates with other turtles so why do they get sick and what do we need to do when they do?

How Does a Turtle or Tortoise Catch a Cold?

The most common reason a turtle or tortoise gets a respiratory infection is due to their environment being too cold. This might be due to a heat bulb burning out, a draft, a move of the enclosure, a cold evening, or transporting your turtle when it's cold outside.

Shared air space with a sick turtle or tortoise can also cause yours to contract the same illness if it is contagious.

What are the Signs that Your Turtle or Tortoise Has a Respiratory Infection?

The most obvious signs of a respiratory infection in a turtle or tortoise are labored breathing, a decrease in energy, a lack of appetite, swimming lop sided or unable to dive, open mouth breathing, whistling while breathing, and drainage from the mouth, eyes, or nostrils including bubbles.

Is it Serious if You Think Your Turtle or Tortoise Has a Cold?

Yes! A cold or respiratory infection can turn into pneumonia and if your turtle goes for an extended amount of time without eating it is bad news. 

What Should You Do if You Think Your Turtle or Tortoise Has a Cold?

First and foremost, check the temperatures in the enclosure. More often than not you will find that the basking area isn't warm enough or it is getting too cold at night.

Think back to any changes your turtle may have experienced. Has he traveled anywhere? Did you move his cage? Did the outside temperature drastically reduce recently? Did you lose power recently? If any light bulbs have blown or the air temperature just isn't what it should be make sure you fix it immediately.

Sometimes just increasing the temperature will make your turtle feel better until he can be seen by the vet. Increasing the humidity is also helpful to loosen up any debris in your turtle's respiratory tract, just like a humidifier or vaporizer helps you when you have a cold (do not use any human medications for your turtle or tortoise unless directed to do so by your veterinarian).

Next, set up that appointment with your exotics vet. You will most likely need antibiotics to battle this infection. A cytology of any discharge that is seen may be performed, radiographs (x-rays) may be recommended to see if there is a visible cause for the breathing changes (heart and lung changes including pneumonia), a culture of the discharge may be recommended, and other tests may be discussed. Depending on the severity of the infection your vet may want to run tests or they may feel comfortable trying antibiotics first.

What Can You Do to Prevent Your Turtle or Tortoise From Catching a Cold?

You should always monitor the temperatures of your turtle's enclosure closely. Don't just pay attention to the middle of the cage during he same time each day but rather check all the areas your turtle or tortoise can get to at various times throughout the day.

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 from a window or door. Correct these issues and keep your turtle warm whenever he needs to leave his enclosure and it is unlikely your turtle or tortoise will get a respiratory infection.