Respiratory Infections for Tortoise Keepers

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Respiratory Infections for Tortoise Keepers

Tortoises can get infections and disease in their lungs, throat or head. caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi, or even poor husbandry- things like poor diet or low temps. Commonly called 'Respiratory Infections' or RI's, there are actually two different diseases depending on where they are centered. An infection centered in the lungs would be Pneumonia, or Lower Respiratory Tract Disease (LRTD). One centered in the head and neck is Upper Respiratory Tract Disease (URTD). While all reptiles can get LRTD, only tortoises seem to get URTD.

Sadly, both URTD and LRTD can be fatal since the disease is often well-advanced before symptoms show, and in the case of URTD, the bacteria is resistant to drugs. Both are very contagious and all reptiles in an enclosure should be tested. The treatment usually tries to use medicine to reduce the pathogen load and treat secondary issues, cleaning the habitat and practicing good hygiene to further reduce the pathogen load and prevent reinfection, and doing what we can to boost the tortoise's immune system.

PNEUMONIA or LRTD (Lower Respiratory Tract Disease)

Bacteria, such as E. coli, Aeromonia species and other gram-negative bacteria; retroviruses and the herpesvirus; fungi like Aspergillis and Candida; insufficient vitamin A and protein in the diet; low habitat temperatures; mites and so on.


Common symptoms are not necessarily obvious or distinctive, and generally include:
- Open-mouth breathing or troubled breathing.
- Loss of appetite, weight loss, poor general health.
- Nasal discharge (more likely for URTD).


- Veterinary tests (x-rays, samples, etc.) can confirm that it is a LRTD and what the main causes are.
- The vet will recommend a course of action based on the causes. It is important to follow the recommendations carefully to have the best chance at fighting this dangerous disease.
- Any medications, such as antibiotics, the vet recommends should be used exactly as described for the best results.
- Have other tortoises checked.
- Disinfect and clean the habitat.
- Boost habitat temperatures and provide other nursing support.

URTD (Upper Respiratory Tract Disease)

URTDs are the most common forms of 'Respiratory Infection' and should be considered much more serious than a 'head cold' or 'flu' it is often compared to. It is thought that the bacteria exists naturally in many species of tortoise, and that the bacterial colony will 'bloom' under certain conditions. While no one knows for sure what triggers the disease, things like stress, increased pathogen counts in the habitat (due to poor hygiene or introducing an infected tortoise), poor temperature control, poor diet, and so forth are possible causes.

It is usually a bacteria called Mycoplasma that few antibiotics affect. Other bacteria, viruses, or fungi, as well as poor diet, temperature control, and hygiene can make things worse or cause secondary infections.

- Discharges from the nares (nostrils) and/or eyes.
- Puffiness around the eyes. May have difficulty opening the eyes.
- Eroded nares, often with grooves developing around the openings.
- Loss of appetite, weight loss.
- General poor health.

Treatment is about the same as LRTD above. There is no known specific treatment for URTD because the primary bacteria cannot be managed with antibiotics. Most of the treatment focuses on treating secondary infections and boosting the immune system.

Cleanliness is important in preventing and fighting any diseases caused by bacteria, viruses, and fungi. If the pathogens are allowed to grow in the enclosure, the animals will infect or reinfect themselves, or cage mates will become infected.

Basic hygienic practices would include:
- Frequent hand washing, especially before, between, and after handling animals.
- Using food and water dishes that can be discarded or disinfected between uses.
- Disinfecting any tools you use between each enclosure.
- Removing poo, old food, etc. before it grows pathogens or attracts pests that can harbor pathogens. Ideally, you remove some of the substrate the wastes were sitting on as well.
- Quarantine new or sick animals.
- Care for healthy animals first so you do not accidentally carry germs from the sick ones to the healthy ones.
- Routinely clean the habitat with a disinfecting agent. Common bleach in a 1:10 ratio, freshly made before use, works well. Allow to work for 10 minutes, then either air dry or rinse.

When you have a sick animal, it is a good idea to completely disinfect the entire habitat. Use a fresh bleach solution on all washable surfaces. Other materials can be baked, frozen, microwaved, or replaced to sterilize it. Most substrates should probably just be completely replaced. Live plants are rarely a concern, but they can be set out in sunshine to help disinfect them.

These practices are used to help strengthen or rebuild am ill or stressed tortoise's immune system. The goals are cleanliness, low stress, and warmth.

It is usually best to set up a nursing tub or a separate habitat for the ill tortoise. Even if you do not need to separate it from the others, it allows you time to completely clean the main habitat. Simple plastic tubs are cheap and easy to disinfect. Solid-walled tubs also help minimize stress. Use a clean substrate- paper towels are often recommended. Change them as they become soiled. Dampen some of the towels for humidity-loving species and baby tortoises.

Make sure there are several hides and hiding places, with at least one being some form of warm, humid hide. Clean, safe, live potted broadleaf plants can help freshen the air and boost humidity while offering shade and hiding places. They may also help reduce stress by making a more natural habitat.

Use gentle lighting, and try hard to offer adequate UVB light for at least a few hours a day. Again, make sure there are plenty of hiding places from the light. Heat the habitat to about 5-10 degrees F warmer than usual. A warming pad under about half the tub will help. For babies or humidity-loving species, mist the shell with warm water a few times a day. Partially cover the habitat if needed to maintain the right conditions.

Position the nursing habitat somewhere that makes it easy to maintain the right conditions, but away from noise, activity, etc. and leave the tortoise as alone as possible.

Make sure the tortoise has ready access to fresh, clean water in a bowl that is sunk to the rim and big enough for the tortoise to soak in. Place in a warm part of the habitat. If the tortoise does not drink or soak on its own, consider offering daily soaks in warm water. While the tortoise cannot absorb water through the skin, the soak helps provide a sort of 'spa' experience- increased humidity, moisturizing the skin, etc. They will often drink during the soak, so it may be helpful to add some organic baby fruit, pumpkin, etc. and liquid vitamins to the soak water.

Follow your regular diet if it is already well-balanced and varied. An occasional small pinch of supplemental calcium and multi-vitamins can help insure that the tortoise is getting the nutrients it needs.

The main source of this article was Dr. Douglas Mader's book “Reptile Medicine and Surgery”. I am not a vet nor a professional in any way, and the suggestions here should not be taken as medical advice or replace a vet's care.

Mark Adkins, Omaha Nebraska. © October 26, 2010.

Discussions about this topic can be viewed or added to by visiting the Respiratory Infections for Tortoise Keepers discussion thread.
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